1876-1878 Street Life in London, Adolphe Smith and John Thomson

Street Life in London was not wildly successful in the years immediately following its publishing. We remember it today because Thomson and Smith were onto something novel. This publication is an early example of social documentary photography. Sure, Mayhew and Greenwood may have taken the same journey to London’s poorest areas, but never before had someone brought their camera along with them. In its earliest days, many believed photography had the ability to record inalienable truth. In other words, photography showed unbiased realities, not sensationalised representations, which meant photographic images carried greater weight than the sketches featured in earlier documentation of the London poor.

John Thomson was an experienced and well-travelled photographer, who spent nearly two decades travelling and photographing East Asia. On the other hand, Adolphe Smith was a radical journalist, dedicated to the cause of socialism. The two worked together to produce three versions of Street Life in London: a single-volume book, a shortened account called Street Incidents, and a 12 month serial running from 1877-1878. As a commercial enterprise, Street Life was not successful. Critics complained Smith’s essays were too “informative” and Thomson’s photographs failed to capture the essence of the “colourful characters”, which testifies to the fact that most readers weren’t looking for information, but entertainment.

One of the most famous photographs featured in the November edition of their 12-month serial: “The Crawlers” (photo taken in 1876). The name “Crawlers” comes from the impoverished woman’s inability to walk. The picture depicts a widow on the doorsteps of a workhouse in London’s notorious St Giles district. We learn from Smith’s essay that this woman in particular has ended up here through no fault of her own. After her husband’s death, her failing eyesight had prevented her from working as a tailor. Instead, she looked after the infant shown here while his mother works two jobs. In return, she’s paid in stale bread and tea leaves. Though not pictured, Smith's essay also tells us of another woman with a similar circumstance, driven to poverty by her husband’s death and inability to find work in her old age.

Sources suggest that there was a degree of negotiation in relationships between Smith, Thomson, and their subjects. Not all participants were passive subjects; some were active in their own representation. The woman is shown dozing, head resting against the wall. Far from being objective, photographs contain theatrics themselves.  The brightness of the infant’s head contrasts the darkness of the image, reminding the viewer of the innocence of this poor boy. Far from being vice-filled beggar, Smith’s account of the woman reveals she doesn’t have the energy to beg, often receiving spare change from beggars themselves.

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