Street Life in London began its run as a monthly serial publication in February of 1877. Each issue included three essays addressing various forms of London labour, accompanied by related photographs. Recognized today as a groundbreaking publication, one of the first forays into what would come to be called “documentary” photography, the publication was hardly a resounding success in its own time.
When its authors, journalist Adolphe Smith and photographer John Thomson, first set out to profile the people who worked in and inhabited London’s streets, they did not intend their project to span only one year; and when the serial ended its run in January 1878 after just twelve issues, the authors had hardly said all they had set out to say, and certainly not everything there was to say, about London street life.
The Victorian book-buying public, however, expressed relatively little interest in the publication, and critics voiced their perplexity. Though the publisher had hoped to maintain Street Life in London on its growing list of photographically-illustrated offerings, the firm instead cancelled the publication after just twelve instalments.
Nineteenth-century audiences had no idea what to make of Smith and Thomson’s experiment, because it was like nothing they had ever seen before. They expected it to resemble the many collections of “street type” prints which, since the sixteenth century, had shown individual figures from street poverty and street culture as isolated specimens, offered for the visual delectation of their social superiors. But Smith and Thomson both wanted to revolutionize the representation of poverty, each in his own way, and in many of Street Life in London’s entries they succeeded – a quality that makes their publication thrillingly innovative to the modern-day audience, but which left Victorian viewers baffled.
[Extract from Emily Morgan’s Foreword to Street Life in London]