John Thomson lived from 14 June 1837 to 29 September 1921. He was a photographer who travelled widely in the Far East and pioneered many aspects of travel photography and photojournalism. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
John Thomson was born in Edinburgh, the son of William Thomson, a shopkeeper. After leaving school he became an apprentice to James Bryson, an optical and scientific instrument maker. He also undertook evening classes at the Watt Institution and School of Arts. In 1861 he became a member of the Royal Scottish Society of Arts, and the following year travelled to Singapore to join his older brother William, a watchmaker and photographer.
On arrival in Singapore, he set up in partnership with his brother, and established a photographic studio. He also began to travel widely, taking his camera with him wherever he went. In 1865 he moved to Siam, now Thailand. The following year he travelled inland to photograph the remains of the ancient cities of Angkor in the Cambodian jungle. He then moved on to Phnom Penh and Saigon before returning to Britain in 1866. On his return he became a member of the Royal Ethnological Society of London and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society. The following year he published his first book, The Antiquities of Cambodia.
Thomson returned to Singapore in the middle of 1867, and then moved on to Hong Kong. He established a studio there, and used is as a base while travelling widely across China during the next four years, photographing the people and recording the diversity of Chinese culture. Photography was not a straightforward operation at the time, involving bulky wooden cameras, many large fragile glass photographic plates, and a range of potentially unpleasant chemicals: it must have been especially challenging in the remote and unpredictable areas through which Thomson travelled.
After his return to Britain in 1872, Thomson settled in Brixton in south London. Here he produced a series of large and comprehensively illustrated books documenting his travels. Working with the journalist Adolphe Smith he also took the photographs for a monthly magazine that ran during 1876 and 1867 called Street Life in London. Later published in book form, this documented the lives of the street people of London in images and words, and pioneered both social documentary photography and photojournalism.
In 1881 Queen Victoria appointed Thomson to be photographer to the British Royal Family. From 1886 he also worked at the Royal Geographical Society to train travellers and explorers in the effective use of photography. Thomson retired in 1910 and moved back to Edinburgh, where he died in 1921.