John Thomson was born in Edinburgh. He studied at the university and began to practice photography. In 1862 he left England to travel and photograph the Far East. The result of this mammoth effort was published in four volumes between 1873 and 1875. On his return to London, Thomson became an instructor in photography at the Royal Geographical Society, as well as operating his own studio. He died in 1921.

Through the year 1877 Thomson (and the writer Adolphe Smith) prowled through the slums of London. With camera, notebook and objective love, they set out to portray the working and living conditions of the London poor. The result was a unique social document, published as book entitled Street Life in London. It is a series of 36 case histories, each illustrated by one of Thomson’s frank, unfeigned photographs. Here was a direct, unflinching encounter with the truth of realism unadorned.