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John Thomson: Pioneer of Photojournalism

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John Thomson was a Scottish photographer, writer, geographer, and traveler. John Thomson was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1837 into a relatively humble family. Young John learned the principles of photography from a scientific instrument maker. He also attended classes at the Watt Institution and the School of Arts in Edinburgh, now known as Heriot-Watt University.

His fascination with the Far East started in 1861 when he first visited his brother William in Singapore. A year later, he returned to Singapore and opened his first photography studio. The series of extraordinary images of Siam and Cambodia were released to the public when John Thomson returned home in Edinburgh for a short while in 1866, thus allowing the West to see pictures of Asian people and their way of life for the first time.

John Thomson supplied pictures for The China Magazine, China’s first photographically illustrated periodical. Once satisfied with his China photo collection, Mr. Thomson returned to London in 1872. He had produced a series of 200 photographs, distributed in four volumes titled “Illustrations of China and Its People,” with narratives concerning each scene and subject he photographed.

From 1876 to 1877, John Thomson worked with the journalist Adolphe Smith on a series of illustrated articles based on interviews with men and women who worked on the streets of London. Later they combined the photographs and articles in a book called “Street Life in London.” It was an early type of social documentary, later known as photojournalism.

John Thomson left a rich legacy after his passing in 1921. John Thomson’s main achievement is perhaps best summarized by the words of Dr. Stephen White in his book “John Thomson: A Window to the Orient” where he wrote: “Thomson accomplished something new in photography. He set out to record a people, what these people were, how they lived, and why they mattered. Everywhere, as Thomson photographed, he attempted to capture the individuality of each of his subjects, whatever their race or social class.”

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