John Thomson was born in Edinburgh, Scotland on June 14, 1837, the eighth of nine children born to tobacco spinner and trader William Thomson and his wife Isabella Newlands Thomson. After completing his formal education at the Bathgate Academy in the early 1850s, he became the instrument apprentice of optician James Mackay Bryson, during which time he learned various photographic techniques. Upon conclusion of his apprenticeship, he took evening classes at the Watt Institution & School of the Arts in Edinburgh, majoring in natural philosophy, mathematics and chemistry. His love of travel and world cultures lent themselves well to his pursuit of photography. Mr. Thomson was not merely interested in recording landscapes and buildings. He wanted to document the cultural norms that influenced those landscapes and buildings.
At the age of 25, Mr. Thomson embarked upon a trip to Singapore to visit his older brother William, who worked there as a watchmaker and amateur photographer. During the next ten years, he traveled throughout Asia, photographing Cambodia, China, Formosa (Taiwan), Siam, and Vietnam, slowed briefly only by an attack of jungle fever. In what was probably one of the first examples of photojournalism, the rigors of such a vocation cannot be underestimated. He traveled with heavy cameras, lenses, delicate glass plates, trays, and other equipment required to create a makeshift darkroom. He also had to transport this equipment over mountains, across jungles, and throughout the treacherous Yangtze River. Some historians have noted a bit of ethnocentrism that was prevalent in the nineteenth century in his descriptions accompanying these photographs. Along his journey, he photographed the kings of Cambodia and Siam, members of their royal courts, and was the first photographer to capture images of Cambodia's Angkor Wat temple.
When he returned to Edinburgh in the spring of 1866, he joined the Royal Ethnological Society of London and the Royal Geographical Society. He gave a series of lectures, and published his first travelogue, The Antiquities of Cambodia, the following year. Shortly thereafter, met and married Isabel Petrie. Together, they would have six children, three sons and three daughters. He returned to Asia, where after trips to Singapore and Saigon, he would open a photography studio in Hong Kong. For the next several years, his cameras would be focused on the people, places, and culture of China.
Returning to London with his family, Mr. Thomson lectured and wrote about his extensive travels, which included the volumes, Foochow and the River Min and Illustrations of China and its People. In collaboration with Adolphe Smith, he published the monthly periodical entitled, Street Life in London, which ultimately resulted in a book of the same name. Queen Victoria names him official photographer of the British royal family in 1881, and he began teaching photography to scientists at the Royal Geographical Society. In 1898, he published Through China with a Camera. Mr. Thomson retired to Edinburgh in 1910, where he died of a heart attack on October 7, 1921, at the age of 84. In recent years, there has been renewed interest in his travel photography, which included an exhibition at Washington, DC's George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum that ran from September 2015 until February 2016. His massive collection of glass plates are currently residing in London’s Wellcome Library.
2011 Brush & Shutter: Early Photography in China edited by Jeffrey W. Cody and Frances Terpak (Los Angeles, CA: J. Paul Getty Trust), p. 47.
2015 China: Through the Lens of John Thomson (URL: https://museum.gwu.edu/china).
2008 Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), p. 1387.
2016 John Thomson by Samuel Stephenson (URL: http://www.reed.edu/Formosa/texts/thomsonbio.html).
2012 Photography as Activism: Images for Social Change by Michelle Bogre (Burlington, MA: Focal Press), p. 14.
2015 Through the Lens of John Thomson (URL: http://www.johnthomsonexhibition.org/biography).
1994 Victorian London Street Life in Historic Photographs by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith (reprint) (New York: Dover Publications), pp. 5, 16, 25.
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