2: Landscape as Journey Inspiration

Liz Nicol

In the Rubber Band Project (1997), Liz Nicol collaborated with her young son to make a body of work around the streets close to their home. Nicol’s son noticed and started collecting the rubber bands discarded by postmen on their deliveries. The pair began to set aside the bands collected on each day of the school run over a period of a year. Nicol then recorded the bands using the cyanotype process. This is one of the earliest and simplest photographic printing techniques and is particularly associated with the botanical contact prints of Anna Atkins (1799–1871). [Atkins’s prints were compiled in Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843), considered to be the first book to be illustrated with photographs.] As Nicol describes:“The ‘cyanotypes’, are like architectural drawings and blank blue monitor screens. They are part of a map. The prints are a tracing not just literallyof the rubber band, but an imprint of an event, like islands in the sea…The cyanotypes… are a tracing of the rubber bands that we found and a mapping of the walk.”

See a video of Nicol demonstrating the cyanotype process:

Source Jesse Alexander 2013 pp 67-68

2: Landscape as Journey

Bernd and Hilla Becher

Typological method

The Bechers’ grids pose questions about the nature of photography – as documentary collections of images of the world. They use a consistent technique (they used a 10” x 8” camera) applied to similar, or specific types of subjects – particularly functional industrial structures. The subtle individualities of these emerge through meticulous visual scrutiny of each, combined with repetition and juxtaposition as a pattern of the whole.

Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts (2011, p.194) describe the visual effect of one of their collections:

“The effect of this repeated pattern was very powerful. A single cooling tower may look beautiful, but nine cooling towers on one sheet looks like a series of ancient monoliths, or temples, or plinths for statues of long forgotten gods.”

At the very least, the Bechers’ typologies stand for deeper concerns about the essence of photography, particularly about ideas relating to the medium and its practitioners as collectors – gathering, arranging and archiving visual information about the world.
[See David Campany’s essay ‘Almost the same thing: some thoughts on the collector-photographer’ in Dexter, E. & Weski, T. (eds.) (2003) Cruel and Tender: The Real in the Twentieth-Century Photograph. London: Tate Publishing]

The Photographic Comportment of Bernd and Hilla Becher, Blake Stimson, 1 April 2004 Tate Papers Issue 1

The Bechers present modern industry in a manner that disavows its social, political and economic value to the beholder and, in so doing, makes it available anew via an alternative category – aesthetic value or value ‘without any interest’.

.. the pattern of ‘rhythms and repetitions’ established between the individual pictures (and, we might add, between individual series as well) is’very much the idea of the work.’ Such, the artists have admitted, is their goal – ‘to produce a more or less perfect chain of different forms and shapes’… 

Their system is based on a rigorous set of procedural rules: a standardised format and ratio of figure to ground, a uniformly level, full-frontal view, near-identical flat lighting conditions or the approximation of such conditions in the photographic processing, a consistent lack of human presence, a consistent use of the restricted chromatic spectrum offered by black and white photography rather than the broad range given by colour, precise uniformity in print quality, sizing, framing and presentation, and a shared function for all the structures photographed for a given series. There is another obvious rule too, although one their project might be said to systematically ignore – their industrial history is exclusively and resolutely a history of the west…. The term they generally use to describe their method is ‘typological’ and they freely state that it has ’much to do with the nineteenth century’, that is, they say, with ‘the encyclopaedic approach’ used, for example, in botany or zoology or, we might add, psychology and criminology. Indeed, we might say more broadly, their system is based precisely on the principle of the archive – its ‘dry compartmentalisation’, as Allan Sekula has put it – that so concerned Michel Foucault.

The New Topographics

Bernd and Hilla Becher were the only non-American contributors to New Topographics.  The Bechers’ contribution  was a grid consisting of multiple views of a coal processing plant in Pennsylvania.

They inspired a generation of students who studied under them in the late1970s and 80s at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, including Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff and Thomas Struth.


2: Landscape as Journey 5: Resolution Inspiration

Nadav Kander

Kander’s website (flash based)

Nadav Kander (born December 1, 1961) is a London-based photographer, artist and director, known for his portraiture and landscapes.

Kander was born in Tel Aviv, Israel. His father flew Boeing 707s for El-Al but lost his eye and was unable to continue flying. His parents decided to start again in South Africa and moved to Johannesburg in 1963. Kander began taking pictures when he was 13 on a Pentax camera. He states the pictures that he took then and until he was 17, although unaccomplished, have the same sense of quiet and unease that is part of his work today. After being drafted into the South African Air Force, Kander worked in a darkroom printing aerial photographs. It was there he became certain he wanted to be a Photographer. He moved to London in 1986, where he still resides with his wife Nicole and their three children.

 Yangtze – The Long River (2010)

Kander is best known for his Yangtze – The Long River series, for which he earned the Prix Pictet Prize. See images

Kander uses the course of the Yangtze as a strategy to travel through the hugely diverse topography and geography of China. Kander made several voyages along the course of China’s Yangtze River, travelling upstream from mouth to source over a period of three years.

The actual river features prominently. Using the river as a metaphor the journey begins at the coastal estuary, where thousands of ships leave and enter each day, and moves past renowned suicide bridges, coal mines and the largest dam in the world – the Three Gorges Dam. Further inland we encounter Chongqing – the fastest-growing urban centre on the planet. Kander never photographed further than twenty miles from the river itself. In the shadow of epic construction projects we see workers, fishermen, swimmers and a man washing his motorbike in the river. Dense architecture gives way to mountains in the upper reaches towards the river’s Tibetan source – a sparsely populated area where the stream is mostly broken ice and just ankle deep. The photographs are dominated by immense architectural structures where humans are shown as small in their environment. Figures are dwarfed by landscapes of half completed bridges and colossal Western-style apartment blocks that are rapidly replacing traditional Chinese low-rise buildings and houseboats.

In Kander’s images, we are also confronted with a terrifying reality: this time it is not the feral landscape that startles us, but the bleak facts about man’s unstoppability. Kander manages to communicate a sense of its epic scale, and also the environmental impact the habitations along its banks are having upon the climate more generally. His murky, smog-filled scenes are unashamedly value-laden – to show how Kander feels China is losing its roots.

His working method: he does not plan everything in advance. But uses the photographic process as a means of discovering more and more what resonates with him. He went back to China 5 times, taking fewer but more focused pictures each time.

Other works

In 2010- 2012 Kander photographed a series of nudes – Bodies. 6 Women. 1 Man – in his London studio. Coated in white marble dust and set against the void of the photographer’s studio the subjects serve as a study of the human condition.

Rooted in an interest in the ‘aesthetics of destruction’ Kander’s most recent project Dust explores the vestiges of the Cold War through the radioactive ruins of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. Will Self has said These images do not make beautiful what is not, they ask of us that we repurpose ourselves to accept a new order of both the beautiful and the real.

On 18 January 2009 Kander had 52 full colour portraits published in one issue of The New York Times Magazine. These portraits were of the people surrounding US President Barack Obama, from Joe Biden (Vice President) toEugene Kang (Special Assistant to The President). This is the largest portfolio of work by the same photographer The New York Times Magazine has showcased in one single issue.[3]

In July 2012 Kander exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in London with a series of portraits celebrating London’s hosting of the 2012 Summer Olympics. In 2014 Nadav was among the 18 photographers chosen to be a part of Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age, an exhibition at the Barbican Centre in London, and toured, which explored the ability of architectural photography to reveal wider truths about our society.

Kander is a Trustee of the The Lowry. He is represented by Flowers Gallery – London, M97 Gallery – Shanghai, Blindspot Gallery – Hong Kong and Camera Work Photographie – Berlin.


2: Landscape as Journey

Alec Soth

Alec Soth website

You Tube videos – many!

Alec Soth (born 1969, Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States) is an American photographer, notable for “large-scale American projects” featuring the midwestern United States. His photography has a cinematic feel with elements of folklore that hint at a story behind the image.  His work tends to focus on the “off-beat, hauntingly banal images of modern America” according to The Guardian art critic Hannah Booth. He is a member of Magnum photo agency.

Soth has had various books of his work published by major publishers as well as self-published through his own Little Brown Mushroom.

Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004)

Alec Soth used the great Mississippi river in a series was made over a period of five years. This brings together Soth’s much more long-standing personal relationship with the river. Like the path of the river itself, the subject matter and style of Soth’s ruthlessly edited series meanders, traversing American cultures, and dips intimately, yet somehow respectfully, in and out of strangers’ lives. The river itself rarely features in the final edit, and allusions to the Mississippi’s industrial and social heritage are subtly suggested.

Vimeo of book

Read an interview with Soth and see the images at:

Publications  (Wikipedia list)

  • Sleeping by the Mississippi. Photographs by Alec Soth, essays by Patricia Hampl and Anne Wilkes Tucker. Göttingen: Steidl, 2004.
  • Niagara. Göttingen: Steidl, 2006. ISBN 978-3865212337. Photographs by Alec Soth, essays by Richard Ford and Philip Brookman.
  • The Image To Come: How Cinema Inspires Photographers. Göttingen: Steidl, 2007.
  • Fashion Magazine. Paris: Magnum, 2007. ISBN 978-2-9524102-1-2.
  • Dog Days, Bogotá. Göttingen: Steidl, 2007.
  • Sheep. Oakland: TBW Books, 2008.
  • Last Days of W. St. Paul, Minnesota: Little Brown Mushroom, 2008.
  • Dog Days Bogota. Göttingen: Steidl, 2008. ISBN 978-3-865214-51-5.
  • Broken Manual. Göttingen: Steidl, 2010. ISBN 978-3-869301-99-0. With Lester B. Morrison.
  • Brighton Picture Hunt. Photographs by Carmen Soth, edited by Alec Soth. Brighton: Photoworks, 2010. ISBN 978-1903796429.
  • From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2010. ISBN 978-0-935640-96-0. Catalogue of a retrospective exhibition curated by Siri Engberg. Foreword by Olga Viso; texts by Geoff Dyer, “Riverrun”; Britt Salvesen, “American History”; Barry Schwabsky, “A Wandering Art”; a poem by August Kleinzahler, “Sleeping it off in Rapid City”; and Soth in conversation with Bartholomew Ryan, “Dismantling My Career”. Includes separate book The Loneliest Man in Missouri by Soth, inserted into back cover.
  • Ash Wednesday, New Orleans. Kamakura, Japan: Super Labo, 2010.
  • One Mississippi. Nazraeli Press, 2010.
  • The Auckland Project. Photographs by Soth and John Gossage. Radius Books, 2011.
  • Rodarte. Photographs by Soth and Catherine Opie. JRP|Ringier, 2011.
  • Postcards From America. Photographs by Soth, Jim Goldberg, Susan Meiselas, Paolo Pellegrin, Mikhael Subotzky, and Ginger Strand. Magnum, 2011.
  • La Belle Dame Sans Merci. Edizioni Punctum, 2011.
  • Looking for Love. Berlin: Kominek Bücher, 2012.
  • Ping Pong Conversations: Alec Soth with Francesco Zanot. Rome: Contrasto, 2013. ISBN 978-8869654091. Transcripts compiled from conversations between Soth and Zanot, with new and previously published photographs by Soth. Zanot contributes an introduction, “Alec Soth: the Recycling of Photography”.
  • Songbook. Göttingen: Steidl, 2015. ISBN 978-1910164020.


2: Landscape as Journey

Chris Coekin

Chris Coekin website

Chris Coekin’s monograph The Hitcher (2007) documents several years of hitchhiking throughout the UK. Coekin was drawn to hitchhiking as a unique form of transport, which relies upon the generosity of strangers and demands relinquishing some control over route or even destination. The Hitcher comprises self-portraits and incidental details that illuminate his journey (rubbish, mushrooms, prophylactics…), taken on a compact consumer camera, the quality of which reflects the impromptu nature of the project.

The Hitcher series 1

The Hitcher series 2 focuses on portraits of the drivers

The Hitcher series 3 focuses on objects along the way – dead rabbits, cigarette packets

These anecdotal images perhaps illustrate the sense of pace of the road, which is subverted by drawing upon details of litter and other detritus that are impossible to take in when travelling in a car at speed. Coekin also used hitchhiking as a means to collect portraits. After drivers dropped him off, he would ask to take their portrait. For Coekin, what was so distinctive about this approach was the fact that the process removed responsibility from the photographer to select whom he wanted to photograph.

In the book’s introductory essay, Camilla Brown contrasts Coekin’s method to traditional approaches in documentary, which, in spite of photographers’ best efforts to the contrary, invariably remain voyeuristic: “They [the drivers] effectively selected themselves to become part of the work, through their split-second decision to give him a ride. This is interesting when one compares it to other journeys recorded by photographers who are part of the social documentary tradition, in which it is the photographer who decides whom and what to photograph. The subjects are usually unaware that they have become part of a body of work. Even those that are called ‘concerned photographers’, who live in amongst the people they photograph, remain in a voyeuristic perspective – outside of, and separate to, the subjects of the work. Coekin’s project is by its very nature much more participative, and there is a different level of exchange between the photographer and those who are photographed. They all have the choice to take part, and invariably they are happy to oblige.”

Source Alexander 2013.

2: Landscape as Journey

Paul Graham

Paul Graham website

Paul Graham archive Great North Road

Great North Road Vimeo

Paul Graham (UK, 1956) belongs to that generation of photographers who were amongst the last to engage with the medium before it became part of the broader contemporary art world.

At the beginning of the 1980’s Graham was among the first photographers to unite contemporary colour practise with the ‘documentary’ genre. In 1981/2 he completed ‘A1 – The Great North Road‘– The Great North Road (1983) , a series of colour photographs from the length of the British A1 road, which had a transformative effect on the black and white tradition that dominated British photography to that point. A1  is held up as a turning point within British documentary photography – when it became legitimate to use colour instead of black-and-white. The road itself features rarely in the 41 plates that make up the monograph; much of Graham’s attention is drawn to the various cafés and service stations along the route. The series is almost completely devoid of any recognisable landmarks (i.e. places of social or historical significance), and might easily be taken for any major British road. Rather than the A1 as simply an object of study, Graham uses it to transect the north / south divide: the road becomes a means of investigation.

This work, along with his other photographs of the 1980’s – the colour images of unemployment offices in ‘Beyond Caring‘ (1984-85), and the sectarian marked landscape of Northern Ireland in ‘Troubled Land‘ (1984-86) – were pivotal in reinvigorating and expanding this area of photographic practice, by both broadening it’s visual language, and questioning how such photography might operate. Many UK photographers moved to colour soon after, and a new school of British Photography evolved with the subsequent colour work of Richard Billingham, Tom Wood, Paul Seawright, Anna Fox, Simon Norfolk, Nick Waplington, etc.

Since then Graham moved outside of his UK roots, but continued to explore the fertile territory where the descriptive and artistic aspects of photography coalesce, often tackling difficult subject matter for a medium that engages with the observable world.

New Europe‘ (1988-1993) used a poetic flow of images to look at the tension between the shadow of history and the rush to an economic superstate in Western Europe.

Empty Heaven‘ (1989-1995), considers the relationship between historical trauma and the child-like fantasy world in Japan – themes that would later become central to the ‘Superflat’ movement of contemporary Japanese art.  in

End of an Age‘ (1996-98)More recently his work has reflected an examination of what we expect from a photographic image, be it a portrait – as in these hard:soft images of young people

American Night‘ (1998-2003) reflects the landscape and social fracture of America through overexposed, near invisible white images. Examining what actually registers in our sight with

Graham moved to the United States in 2002, where he completed ‘a shimmer of possibility‘ (2004-2006) which embraces everyday moments of life in todays United States, whilst embracing time’s flow as a part of still photographic work through extended sequences of images.

Most recently, ‘The Present‘, completed this trilogy of works in the USA, with doubled moments taken unstaged from the streets of New York. These diptych works are separated only by a fraction of a second, yet highly specific focus shifts awareness between the images.

This unofficial trilogy of USA works – ‘American Night‘, ‘a shimmer of possibility‘ and ‘The Present‘, each embrace one of the 3 principle controls of the camera: Aperture, Shutter and Focus. As the aperture controls the light, the shutter controls time, and focus specifies what we look at, the trilogy of American works could also be described as engaging with Light, Time and Consciousness.



2: Landscape as Journey Documentary History Inspiration

Robert Frank

Robert Frank The Americans

Robert Frank (born 1924), along with Diane Arbus and others, was one of the founder members of the New York School of photographers in the 1940s and 50s.

The Americans, by Robert Frank, was a highly influential book in post-war American photography. With the aid of his major artistic influence, the photographer Walker Evans, Frank secured a Guggenheim Fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. In 1955, he set out on a two year journey across America, during which time he took 28,000 images of American society.

Frank’s journey was not without incident. While driving through Arkansas, Frank was arbitrarily thrown in jail for three days after being stopped by the police who accused him of being a communist (their reasons: he was shabbily dressed, he was Jewish, he had letters about his person from people with Russian sounding names, his children had foreign sounding names – Pablo & Andrea, and he had foreign whiskey with him). He was also told by a sheriff elsewhere in the South that he had “an hour to leave town.”


Only 80 or so of these images actually made it into Frank’s book, The Americans. The book was first published in France in 1958. In 1959, The Americans was finally published in the United States by Grove Press, with the text removed from the French edition due to concerns that it was too un-American in tone. The added introduction by Kerouac, along with simple captions for the photos, were now the only text in the book, which was intended to mirror the layout of Walker Evans’ American Photographs.

The photographs were notable for their distanced view of both high and low strata of American society. The book as a whole created a complicated portrait of the period that was viewed as skeptical of contemporary values and evocative of ubiquitous loneliness. Frank found a tension in the gloss of American culture and wealth over race and class differences, which gave his photographs a clear contrast to those of most contemporary American photojournalists.

Frank’s images also challenged established photographic values. His use of unusual focus, low lighting and cropping that deviated from accepted photographic techniques. His images had blurred people and sloping horizons and asked questions of the viewer. They didn’t open up easily but required careful reading; for this reason, Frank’s work is seen as a major step forward for photography and its ability to communicate in new and different ways.

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the book’s original publication (15 May 2008), a new edition was published by Steidl.  Robert Frank was deeply involved in the design and production of this edition, in which most images are recropped and two slightly different photographs are used.

Robert Frank discussed with his publisher, Gerhard Steidl, the idea of producing a new edition using modern scanning and the finest tritone printing. The starting point was to bring original prints from New York to Göttingen, Germany, where Steidl is based. In July 2007, Frank visited Göttingen. A new format for the book was worked out and new typography selected. A new cover was designed and Frank chose the book cloth, foil embossing and the endpaper. Most significantly, as he has done for every edition of The Americans, Frank changed the cropping of many of the photographs, usually including more information.


Frank’s photographs were on display at the Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill until January 4, 2009. A celebratory exhibit of The Americans were displayed in 2009 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

2: Landscape as Journey 5: Resolution Documentary Inspiration To Do

Lee Friedlander

Lee Friedlander (born July 14, 1934) is an American photographer and artist. Friedlander studied photography at the Art Center College of Design located in Pasadena, California. In 1956, he moved to New York City where he photographed jazzmusicians for record covers. In 1960, the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation awarded Friedlander a grant to focus on his art and made subsequent grants in 1962 and 1977.

1960s and 70s: black and white social landscape

His early work was influenced by Eugène Atget, Robert Frank, and Walker Evans.

Working primarily with Leica 35mm cameras and black and white film, Friedlander evolved an influential and often imitated visual language of urban “social landscape,” with many of the photographs including fragments of store-front reflections, structures framed by fences, posters and street-signs.

He also experimented with use of his own shadow as an extra element in the image – giving many of them a more haunted eerie feel of an obvious onlooker to the scene.

1960s social landscape images

1970s images

In 1963, the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House mounted Friedlander’s first solo museum show. Friedlander was then a key figure in curator John Szarkowski‘s 1967 “New Documents” exhibition, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City along with Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus. In 1973, his work was honored in Rencontres d’Arles festival (France) with the screening “Soirée américaine : Judy Dater, Jack Welpott, Jerry Uelsmann, Lee Friedlander” présentée par Jean-Claude Lemagny.

1980s – present

Friedlander now works primarily with medium format cameras (e.g. Hasselblad Superwide). While suffering from arthritis and housebound, he focused on photographing his surroundings. His book, Stems, reflects his life during the time of his knee replacement surgery. He has said that his “limbs” reminded him of plant stems. These images display textures which were not a feature of his earlier work. In this sense, the images are similar to those of Josef Sudek who also photographed the confines of his home and studio.

Stems Images

Some of his most famous photographs appeared in the September 1985 Playboy, black and white nude photographs of Madonna from the late 1970s. A student at the time, she was paid only $25 for her 1979 set. In 2009, one of the images fetched $37,500 at a Christie’s Art House auction.

In 1990, the MacArthur Foundation awarded Friedlander a MacArthur Fellowship.

He was awarded The Royal Photographic Society’s Special 150th Anniversary Medal and Honorary Fellowship (HonFRPS) in recognition of a sustained, significant contribution to the art of photography in 2003. In 2005, the Museum of Modern Art presented a major retrospective of Friedlander’s career, including nearly 400 photographs from the 1950s to the present. In the same year he received a Hasselblad International Award. The retrospective exhibition was presented again in 2008 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA).

Lee Friedlander monograph America by Car (2010)


All the images in the series are taken from the driver’s point of view, incorporating into the viewfinder all of the familiar architecture of the cockpit (dashboard, rear-view mirror, views from side windows and wing mirrors and so on). This claustrophobia presents an American landscape at odds with the car and its driver; the windscreen forms a barrier between the individual and the landscape beyond. The car can only take you so far into the wilderness. The vast majority of the images in Friedlander’s book were made after 2001, and several images hint towards the international concerns of the past decade and beyond. The road – or, rather, whatever passing motorists will notice – is where political voices are articulated in loud, upper case letters: “WE SUPPORT OUR TROOPS”, declares Little Millers diner in Alaska (p. 89). A campaign vehicle covered with pro-Obama stickers (p.104) is a prime example of using a vehicle as a legitimate extension of ideology and identity. [See Martin Parr’s From A to B (1994)].

Endless gas stations, a ubiquitous motif of the road trip narrative, inevitably contribute to the collection.

Concurrent to this retrospective, a more contemporary body of his work, America By Car, was displayed at the Fraenkel Gallery not far from SFMOMA. “America By Car” was on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City in late 2010.

2: Landscape as Journey Documentary History

John Thomson

edited from Wikipedia article

Google images

John Thomson (14 June 1837 – 29 September 1921) was a pioneering Scottish photographer, geographer and traveller. He was an accomplished photographer in many areas: landscapes, portraiture, street-photography, architectural photography. He was one of the first photographers to travel to the Far East, documenting the people, landscapes and artifacts of eastern cultures for his Victorian audience.  He was however more concerned with the socio-economic situation of the people whose land he visited than landscape as a subject in  itself (Jeffrey, 1981, p. 64).

On his return home, his pioneering work documenting the social conditions of the street  is regarded as a classic instance of social documentary which laid the foundations for photojournalism.  He went on to become a portrait photographer of High Society in Mayfair, gaining the Royal Warrant in 1881. His publishing activities mark him out as an innovator in combining photography with the printed word.

The son of William Thomson, a tobacco spinner and retail trader, and his wife Isabella, Thomson was born the eighth of nine children in Edinburgh.  After his schooling in the early 1850s, he was apprenticed to a local optical and scientific instrument manufacturer, thought to be James Mackay Bryson. During this time, Thomson learned the principles of photography and completed his apprenticeship around 1858. In 1861 he became a member of the Royal Scottish Society of Arts.

South East Asia 1862-1872: Singapore, Malaya, Sumatra, Siam, Cambodia and China


In April 1862, Thomson left Edinburgh for Singapore to join his older brother William, a watchmaker and photographer, beginning a ten-year period spent travelling around the Far East. Initially, he established a joint business with William to manufacture marine chronometers and optical and nautical instruments. He also established a photographic studio in Singapore, taking portraits of European merchants, and he developed an interest in local peoples and places. He travelled extensively throughout the mainland territories of Malaya and the island of Sumatra, exploring the villages and photographing the native peoples and their activities.

Siam and Cambodia

After visiting Ceylon and India from October to November 1864 to document the destruction caused by a recent cyclone, Thomson sold his Singapore studio and moved to Siam. After arrival in Bangkok in September 1865, Thomson undertook a series of photographs of the King of Siam and other senior members of the royal court and government.

 Prea Sat Ling Poun, Angkor Wat, 1865.

Inspired by Henri Mouhot’s account of the rediscovery of the ancient cities of Angkor in the Cambodian jungle, Thomson embarked on what would become the first of his major photographic expeditions. He set off in January 1866 with his translator H. G. Kennedy, a British Consular official in Bangkok, who saved Thomson’s life when he contracted jungle fever en route. The pair spent two weeks at Angkor, where Thomson extensively documented the vast site, producing some of the earliest photographs of what is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Thomson then moved on to Phnom Penh and took photographs of the King of Cambodia and other members of the Cambodian Royal Family, before travelling on to Saigon. From there he stayed in Bangkok briefly, before returning to Britain in May or June in 1866.

While back home, Thomson lectured extensively to the British Association and published his photographs of Siam and Cambodia. He became a member of the Royal Ethnological Society of London and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in 1866, and published his first book, The Antiquities of Cambodia, in early 1867.

There have however been accusations of plagiarism. In 2001 Phiphat Phongraphiphon, a Thai independent researcher in historical photography, published claims that Thomson plagiarised works by Thai court photographer Khun Sunthornsathitsalak (Christian name: Francis Chit) and published them as his own. Evidence to Phiphat’s claims include an analysis of a photograph in which the temple Wat Rajapradit, which was built before Thomson arrived in Bangkok, is missing.

Travels in China 1868-1872

Island Pagoda, about 1871, from the album, Foochow and the River Min



Images from Travels in China

After a year in Britain, Thomson again felt the desire to return to the Far East. He returned to Singapore in July 1867, before moving to Saigon for three months and finally settling in Hong Kong in 1868. He established a studio in the Commercial Bank building, and spent the next four years photographing the people of China and recording the diversity of Chinese culture.

Thomson travelled extensively throughout China, from the southern trading ports of Hong Kong and Canton to the cities of Peking and Shanghai, to the Great Wall in the north, and deep into central China. From 1870 to 1871 he visited the Fukien region, travelling up the Min River by boat with the American Protestant missionary Reverend Justus Doolittle, and then visited Amoy and Swatow.

He went on to visit the island of Formosa with the missionary Dr. James Laidlaw Maxwell, landing first in Takao in early April 1871. The pair visited the capital, Taiwanfu, before travelling on to the aboriginal villages on the west plains of the island. After leaving Formosa, Thomson spent the next three months travelling 3,000 miles up the Yangtze River, reaching Hupeh and Szechuan.

Thomson’s travels in China were often perilous, as he visited remote, almost unpopulated regions far inland. Most of the people he encountered had never seen a Westerner or camera before. His expeditions were also especially challenging because he had to transport his bulky wooden camera, many large, fragile glass plates, and potentially explosive chemicals. He photographed in a wide variety of conditions and often had to improvise because chemicals were difficult to acquire. His subject matter varied enormously: from humble beggars and street people to Mandarins, Princes and senior government officials; from remote monasteries to Imperial Palaces; from simple rural villages to magnificent landscapes.

Street Life in London

Thomson returned to England in 1872, settling in Brixton, London and, apart from a final photographic journey to Cyprus in 1878, Thomson never left again. Over the coming years he proceeded to lecture and publish, presenting the results of his travels in the Far East. His publications started initially in monthly magazines and were followed by a series of large, lavishly illustrated photographic books. He wrote extensively on photography, contributing many articles to photographic journals such as the British Journal of Photography. He also translated and edited Gaston Tissandier’s 1876 History and Handbook of Photography, which became a standard reference work.
In London, Thomson renewed his acquaintance with Adolphe Smith, a radical journalist whom he had met at the Royal Geographical Society in 1866. Together they collaborated in producing the monthly magazine, Street Life in London, from 1876 to 1877. The project documented in photographs and text the lives of the street people of London, establishing social documentary photography as an early type of photojournalism. The series of photographs was later published in book form in 1878.

The Crawlers, London, 1876-1877





He was elected a member of the Photographic Society, later the Royal Photographic Society, on 11 November 1879. With his reputation as an important photographer well established, Thomson opened a portrait studio in Buckingham Palace Road in 1879, later moving it to Mayfair. In 1881 he was appointed photographer to the British Royal Family by Queen Victoria, and his later work concentrated on studio portraiture of the rich and famous of High Society, giving him a comfortable living. From January 1886 he began instructing explorers at the Royal Geographical Society in the use of photography to document their travels.

After retiring from his commercial studio in 1910, Thomson spent most of his time back in Edinburgh, although he continued to write papers for the Royal Geographical Society on the uses of photography. He died of a heart attack in 1921 at the age of 84. In recognition of his work, one of the peaks of Mount Kenya was named “Point Thomson”.

A large collection of his glass negatives was donated to the Wellcome Library.  Some of Thomson’s work may be seen at the Royal Geographical Society’s headquarters in London.

Selected publications

  • China Through the Lens of John Thomson 1868 -1872, River Books 2010.
  • The antiquities of Cambodia, 1867
  • Views on the North River, 1870.
  • Foochow and the River Min, 1873.
  • Illustrations of China and its people, 1873-1874 [1]
  • Street life in London, 1878
  • Through Cyprus with a camera in the autumn of 1878, 1879
  • Through China with a Camera,[7] 1898


2: Landscape as Journey Documentary Inspiration Landscape Review

The Road

The road has featured prominently in art and literature as a means to get characters from one place to another, and as a stage for narratives to be played out. It has been used as a symbol for:

  • notion of a journey – attaining greater understanding and with a coming of age, as explored in The Road to Perdition (2002) directed by Sam Mendes, for example.
  • symbol of liberation and  means of exploration and adventure, by permitting its users to travel freely from place to place, as in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) or Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (1969). Endless ‘road movies’ have perpetuated the ideology of America as a unified place of opportunity and escape.
  • unfamiliar –  change of pace (for instance by walking instead of driving) brings out a sense of the unheimliche; something very familiar by one means of transport can feel alien when experienced by another.  Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006);  Chris Coekin’s photographic project The Hitcher.
  •  environmental damage and climate change – particularly with cars. Lee Friedlander monograph America by Car (2010)
  • cultural exploration American Photographs (1938) by Walker Evans (1903–75) and Les Américains (1958) by Robert FrankPaul Graham A1 – The Great North Road ; Chris Coekin’s monograph The Hitcher (2007)

Rivers have also been used to define routes to structure photographic exploration.

 2.2 Explore a Road