John Thomson (Scottish, 1837-1921) From top A Convicts’ Home, Covent Garden Flower Women, and Street Doctor, ca. 1876-1877, Woodburytypes, Gift of Alden Scott Boyer, George Eastman House
In 1876, Scottish photographer John Thomson (1837-1921) began publication of a monthly magazine called Street Life in London that combined his images with texts by Adolphe Smith to chronicle the lives of the poor in East London. His subjects—sweeps, bootblacks and flower sellers—were familiar types to consumers of popular genre prints of the period, but the use of photographs gave these people and their surroundings an immediacy and individuality that had never been seen before. The subject of poverty, the reformist text and the mass-production and journalistic presentation all prefigure the rise of photojournalism and the documentary movement. Thomson’s images offer both a window into a now vanishing world, and a glimpse of what would follow.
This was achieved with Walter Woodbury’s 1864 photomechanical process. This industrial technique entailed exposing a piece of chromated gelatin film under a negative. This yielded a toneless photographic image in relief. The film was placed in contact with a lead plate and placed in a large press under tremendous pressure. This turned the lead into an intaglio printing plate. Warm pigmented gelatin was poured onto the plate and was then transferred to the final receiving paper. The Woodburytype process is very stable and produces a beautiful image with continuous tone.