Street Incidents

John Thomson   |   Adolphe SMITH   |   John THOMSON

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Item#: 58070 price:$12,800.00

Street Incidents
Street Incidents
Street Incidents


THOMSON, John. Street Incidents. London: Sampson, Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1881. Tall, slim quarto, original gilt- and black-stamped pictorial green cloth, patterned endpapers. Housed in a custom clamshell box. $12,800.

First abridged edition of the “first concerted body of work to deal with life on the streets,” with 21 mounted brown-tone Woodburytypes from the original glass plates.

“Motivated in part by a reforming desire, to alleviate the wretched living conditions of the urban working class, but also by the Victorian urge to typify,” John Thomson produced this “pioneering work of social documentation in photographs” (Parr & Badger, 39-40). During 1877-78, he created 36 photographs for the monthly parts of Street Life in London, a ground-breaking social commentary, with text by radical socialist journalist Adolphe Smith. Thomson and Smith approached their subjects like ethnographers and anthropologists, “venturing into London’s poorest areas, interviewing [and photographing] their subjects and writing about them as ‘characters’ or ‘types,” in Thomson’s words, “the true types of the London poor” (Parr & Badger). “Few photographs of the London streets had been taken before Thomson’s journey around them, and even fewer were published with the intent of informing public opinion… To combine photographs of the London streets, and to place the poor, the working classes, criminals, and the homeless at the center of the images, was a new departure in photographic documentation… Perhaps the most striking feature of Street Life is that the images have been reproduced photomechanically by the Woodburytype process from the photographer’s original dry-plate negatives. The resultant prints give a strikingly sharp, almost three-dimensional representation… The reason Street Life has ultimately succeeded as the first social documentary photography is that its primary aim was to inform: it was never the intention of Smith or Thomson to claim the literary and artistic high ground… Rather, they aimed to transfer the experiences of the poor into the homes of the comfortable middle class, and to make them aware of a different, harsher reality” (Ovenden, 78-88). The 12 monthly parts of Street Life were reissued in book form in 1878, and also in a shorter version under the title, Street Incidents (1881), with 21 of the photographs (this edition). “Structurally, Street Life is a combination of street portraiture… and interviews with the subjects. Thus it was the direct predecessor of the journalistic picture stories that would appear in illustrated magazines from that period onward” (Parr & Badger). “It was the first published collection of social documentary photographs anywhere in the world” (Museum of London). See Frizot, 348-50; Parr & Badger, 48; Truthful Lens 169; Open Book, 42-43. Prize gift book inscription from 1882 on front free endpaper.

Embrowning to title page and last page, an occasional very faint finger mark. Light rubbing to joints and spine ends. Photographs fine. A very desirable copy of this first photo-documentary. Rare.

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