Reading the chapter entitled Melancholy Objects in Susan Sontag’s book On Photography. Sontag mentions British photographer John Thomson and further research shows that between 1876 and 1877, Thomson and a journalist named Adolphe Smith produced a monthly magazine called Street Life in London. The magazine , an early form of photo journalism, portrayed in images and text, the lives and environments of people living in poverty. Could this have been an early incarnation of the topographic photographers? Certainly there seems to be little beauty in the images and the woman in the photograph below was described as too dispirited to even beg.
Thomson’s career included travel photography and moved eventually into portraiture for the rich and famous including the Victorian royal family. Perhaps the objectivity of his photographic eye of the most appalling conditions allowed him to simply take the photographs for his magazine which he then sold. Did these images draw attention to the plight of these people? In some ways, I imagine he felt no responsibility for improving their lives, but simply documenting them.