Lived from 1837 until 1921, John Thomson was a revolutionary photographer, traveler and geographer from Scotland. He was among the first to travel and document the Far East, exploring its landscapes, people and artifacts. When he returned home, his social photographic documentary on London’s street people secured his reputation. The project built the foundation of photojournalism . Eventually he became a portraitist for Mayfair’s High Society and in 1881, achieved the Royal Warrant.
In the first half of the 1850s, after completing his schooling, Thomson did an apprenticeship under a scientific and optical utensil manufacturer. At this time, Thomson studied about photography principles and by 1858, he was done with his training. During his apprenticeship, he took an evening course at Edinburgh School of Arts for two years. In 1857, for Natural Philosophy, Thomson was given the Attestation of Proficiency and a year later in junior level chemistry and mathematics. The Royal Scottish Society of Arts accepted Thomson as their member in 1861, however a year later he went to Singapore to join hands with William, his photographer brother.
With his brother, John Thomson established a photography studio in Singapore, photographing portraits of European traders. This way he grew fond of local people and places. He spent a decade travelling around the Far East and he also travelled at length to Malaya and Sumatra, discovering the inhabitants, their behavior and activities, and villages. In 1864, he visited India and Ceylon to document the cyclone destruction there. Later his studio in Singapore was bought and Thomson shifted to Siam. In 1865, he arrived in Bangkok and took pictures of Siam’s King and of the higher-ranking associates in the government and royal court.
In 1866, he set off for a journey to the jungles of Cambodia and Angkor’s ancient cities with H.G. Kennedy, his translator. This trip became his first key photographic voyage. The photos of the place he then produced is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Thomson then went to Phnom Penh and photographed Cambodia’s King and members of the royal family, before heading off to Saigon. He then stayed for a short while in Bangkok and returned to Britain in the same year. John Thomson lectured at the British Association and published the images he took of Cambodia and Siam. The same year, he was accepted as a member at London’s Royal Ethnological Society. He also became a Fellow of Royal Geographic Society; and a year later, published The Antiquities of Cambodia, his book.
In 1867, he went back to Singapore before going to Saigon and then in 1868 finally residing in Hong Kong. There he made a studio and spent four years taking pictures of Chinese people and documenting the diversity of their culture. Thomson travelled throughout China. He even visited remote areas that were dangerous. He took pictures in different conditions . His photography subjects varied from beggars to princes.
In 1878, Thomson went on his last photographic trip to Cyprus. He then spent his time lecturing and publishing his work in London. He wrote detailed accounts on photography and many articles for photographic magazines, like British Journal of Photography. Thomson collaborated with a journalist Adolphe Smith and produced Street Life magazine between 1876 and 1877. The project included photos and text of London’s street people.
In 1879, Thomson established a studio in Buckingham Palace Road. In 1881, Queen Victoria appointed John Thomson to photograph the Royal Family of Britain.
Thomson was a proficient photographer of architecture, street, portraiture and landscapes. In 1921, a peak in Mount Kenya was named Point Thomson after him.