> The Crawlers: The Genesis of Social Documentary Photography

Greg Leach / The Crawlers: The Genesis of Social Documentary Photography

September 2016

First published in 1878, the book Street Life in London, by Scottish photographer John Thomson and writer Adolphe Smith, was reissued two years ago by MuseumsEtc Ltd in an attempt to secure its seminal place in the history of the medium, building upon its acknowledged role in the emergence of socially concerned photography. The enduring influence of the work has largely rested on one photograph, entitled The Crawlers. Why did this image emerge out of a project that so comprehensively charts the diverse activities of Victorian Londoners? Why does it retain its potency and immediacy where so many contemporaneous photographs have become relics of history?

The accompanying promotional material to the new edition describes the book as ‘the first concerted body of work to deal with life on the streets of a major European or American city,’ and goes on to acclaim it as ‘one of the most significant and far-reaching photo-books in the medium’s history.’ The authors themselves were more humble. In the preface to the book, Thomson and Smith offer a joint apology for the unoriginality of their venture, citing various predecessors whose intention it was to alert the public to the misfortunes of the urban poor. They go on to say:

‘And now we also have sought to portray these harder phases of life, bringing to bear the precision of photography in illustration of our subject. The unquestionable accuracy of this testimony will enable us to present true types of the London Poor and shield us from the accusation of either underrating or exaggerating individual peculiarities of appearance.’

What they believed differentiated their project was the ‘precision of photography’, with its ‘unquestionable accuracy’. Following its invention in 1839, photography quickly redefined notions of pictorial realism and veracity, finding itself, by the beginning of the 20th century, at an unprecedented confluence of disciplines, coming to the service of science, social science, journalism, the law, civil administration, domestic life, commerce, and art. It was fast becoming the uniquely versatile and ubiquitous medium we know today. Yet despite this – or perhaps because of it – we are still wrestling with its central paradox: it involves the ‘direct’ transfer of observable reality, through mechanical, optical and chemical (latterly electronic) means, into image representation, and yet it generates innumerable sociocultural and ontological questions that continue to defy resolution. This has spawned its own discipline: photographic critical theory – a discourse inadvertently instigated by one of its inventors, William Henry Fox Talbot, who employed numerous terms in his attempt to define what sort of image the photograph is, ultimately failing to find one that was all-encompassing and definitive. Thirty-five years after Talbot’s Pencil of Nature, Thomson and Smith were clearly well aware of photography’s potential to evince a social and ethical position through its intrinsic objectivity – its unprecedented ‘truth to appearance’ attribute – bringing a new level of credibility to their enterprise.

All of the photographs in Street Life in London display John Thomson’s characteristic visual acuity. He was by this time highly versed in his craft, having for many years lived the life of the consummate photographer-explorer, travelling to far-flung continents in the pursuit of subject matter that was as much mythic as factual. This odyssey seems to have brought fresh insight into the perception and understanding of his homeland, motivating him to use his camera to show the viewing public not that which they could never see, but that which they chose not to see.

Most of the pictures in Street Life feature a cast of characters that are either static or are engaged in activities that have been identified by the authors as speaking for their subjects’ wider circumstances. The Crawlers has some of these characteristics, but is different on a number of levels. Firstly, the way the subject is framed – centrally and exclusively – suggests a portrait, and yet it is not a portrait. Within the conventions of the time, isolating an individual within the frame in this way signified portraiture – even when the sitter’s gaze is averted – partly because the procedure involved in making an exposure did not allow for spontaneity. (It is worth noting, however, that Thompson’s project was undertaken on the cusp of technical developments in the sensitivity of film emulsion, heralding the introduction of ‘snapshot’ length exposures.) One exception to this portrait convention was photographs taken to emulate classical sculpture or tableau painting; indeed painters often made photographs to be used purely as reference for their artworks. Such images involved role-playing, however, which clearly does not apply in this case. Thomson has done something rather different, begging the question: What impelled him to approach his subject in this way? We can only speculate. He may have been driven by an impulse to bear witness, to share or to point – an act mitigated by good intentions. He may, of course, have sought to make a portrait, but been thwarted by the woman’s torpor, her inability to engage with him due to the depth of her abjection (a fact that speaks to the wrenching power of the image, to which I will return). One way or another, the resulting image can be said to constitute the first of its kind. It is a social documentary photograph that prefigures the term social documentary photography. Unlike the work of Scottish predecessors Hill and Adamson, who brought more staged artistry to their gentle observations, or Jacob Riis, the Danish-American contemporary of Thomson’s who often rendered his subjects with disturbing brutalism, Thomson’s approach to the woman in The Crawlers reveals – or appears to reveal – an unprecedented combination of spontaneity and sensitivity, a desire to show and express.

A key criterion for successful humanist social documentary photography is its ability to induce empathy in the viewer based on the emotional involvement of the photographer with the subject matter. According to Roland Barthes, the viewer’s reaction to an image operates at two levels that he famously differentiates as the studium (the collective response dictated by social mores, values and codes) and the punctum (the individual response founded on a detail of a picture that has personal resonance). Thanks to the elusive quality of Barthes’ writing, this theory has been ‘used and abused’ in innumerable critical hypotheses on the medium, to which this analysis is no exception. I find it hard to place The Crawlers within his polarities. Arguably, it constitutes a kind of meta-punctum, wherein everything about the image serves to ‘pierce’ us, simply because there is no calculated attempt to do so. It is the very naiveté at the heart of Thompson’s methodology that breaches our socially conditioned defenses, which normally enable us to ration our supply of empathetic concern, limiting the level of our response to that of the studium. Unlike, for example, the imagery of the Farm Security Administration project from the 1930s, which consolidated a compassionate social documentary ethos, Thompson’s approach is not predicated on a desire to manipulate the viewer’s emotional response. It is not burdened by the weight of tradition, with all its attendant questions and debates. This sets it apart. Extending the argument, it could even be said that The Crawlers renders all subsequent social documentary photographs redundant, because they are mere echoes of an original, and as such can never shake off their ‘self-consciousness’, the sense a photographer has – and that the discerning viewer can recognize – of anticipating the effect of a photograph while in the process of taking it, which inevitably finds its way into that photograph. Indeed, it is often the recognition of this potential – which some regard as preternatural intuition – that triggers the act of photographing in the first place.

So what is that captivates us about The Crawlers? Importantly, its enduring pathos is founded on a quality of understatement. This woman suffers in silence; she is stoical, surviving against all the odds. It is her everyday life that is depicted here. The catastrophe of her descent into the gutter is implicit, not revealed within a symbolic or encapsulating moment of extreme drama (the narrative is in fact provided by the accompanying text). As such, it carries the weight of her profound degradation, suggesting the insidious nature of human misfortune, which rings true to our experience of life. More extraordinarily, this image delivers its emotional impact through time, prompting a visceral reaction in the modern viewer – or at least in me – that equates to ‘witnessing’ a more recent example of human misery, one that may still be subject to change. To that extent, it defies Susan Sontag’s dictum that ‘the particular qualities and intentions of photographs tend to be swallowed up in the generalized pathos of time past’. We can regard this image as historical evidence of the extreme stratification of Victorian society, or as a totem of human struggle that speaks beyond the confines of period and place.

It is the essential humbleness, then, that enables this picture to transcend what it records. What it mobilizes in us – consciously or otherwise – is our relationship with an icon: that of the Madonna and Child, which, due to its recapitulation throughout art history, is central to the Judeo-Christian psyche. But, as Adolphe Smith’s accompanying text makes clear, the woman and child depicted in The Crawlers are unrelated, bringing an unusual twist to our understanding of this formative, idealized relationship. To regard this image as simply another affirmation of the innate ‘mothering instinct’ in women (with its patriarchal paradox of elevation and subjugation) is to ignore the circumstances of the woman’s predicament, as described by Smith. The child, he relates, is that of a friend of the woman’s, whose task it is to care for the infant while the mother is at work during the day and again in the evening. For these services she is rewarded with a cup of tea and/or a piece of bread ­– or, on some occasions, neither, often leaving her without sustenance for the day. The fringe benefit that the woman derives from this imbalanced exchange is suggested in the single quote from her that appears in Smith’s text. Referring to the child, she says, ‘it pushes its little head under my chin when it is very cold, and cuddles up to me, so that it keeps me warm as well as itself.’ This reveals both the resilience of the woman’s humanity in the face of debasement (embodied in the adjective little), and the expedient nature of the arrangement – the mutuality at the heart of their relationship. The poignancy of this bond – and another potential punctum – is represented by the woman’s shawl, which has been extended to wrap around the baby, drawing it into herself in a way suggestive of corporeal containment, of pregnancy.

Comparison with a successor, indeed the dominant photographic icon of motherhood, is inevitable: Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange. In literary terms, this is Charles Dickens (Thomson) versus John Steinbeck (Lange), two of the great chroniclers of their respective eras, albeit in fiction. The film versions of the pertinent novels, Oliver Twist (David Lean, 1948) and The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, 1940), retain some of the differences in the writing, the former drawing on a gothic tradition to stylize the bleakness of its tale, the latter channeling a social realist tradition under the influence of the Farm Security Administration’s photographic documentation. As previously stated, it was the FSA’s project that cemented the ethos of compassionate social documentary photography, epitomized by Lange’s 1936 image of Depression-blighted rural life in America. In this image, human dignity prevails. Through the subject’s expression – specifically the way she literally ‘looks beyond’ her present circumstances – we are given the opportunity to admire this woman, not merely pity her. This is partly reflective of a change in values over the sixty years between the making of The Crawlers and Migrant Mother. In the 19th century, in an era before the welfare state, rigid hierarchies were an accepted feature of social structure. As a result, being exposed to the plight of the poverty-stricken would not necessarily induce ethical qualms from those enjoying relative prosperity. Inequality was built into the system, regarded as an inevitable consequence of the human condition. What Lange and her set recognized was that for campaigning social documentary photography to be persuasive, the viewer has to see him/herself reflected in the subject; hence, we empathize not with the Migrant Mother’s predicament per se, which most of us have never experienced, but with her determination to extricate herself from it, her desire and potential to ‘join us’.

The abject figure, by contrast, is essentially the Other, arriving at a place where we, as functioning citizens, struggle to recognize common attributes – the things we share with those around us. Despite being shot at an angle that puts the viewer on a level with the woman, The Crawlers – in its very title – represents the epitome of this Otherness. The term referred to people who were raised from their torpor in order, literally, to crawl to a benevolent coffee shop keeper or publican, to plead for hot water for the few tealeaves they had successfully begged. It is interesting to note that Smith’s accompanying text begins with a generalized account of crawlers, apparently based as much on (poor) reputation as journalistic investigation. The two he got to know (there was a second woman who failed to turn up for the photographic shoot) are presented in a better light, as victims of a set of misfortunes that they are determined to overcome, despite the impression gained from the subject’s depiction.

What cannot be refuted is the legacy of this image. Its enduring influence is conspicuously evident in a photograph taken almost exactly a century later by Chris Killip for his project In Flagrante, which charts the plight of the working class in post-industrial Northern Britain in the late 1970s and early 80s. Although Killip’s Youth on a Wall reflects the process of aesthetic development that the medium had undergone in the intervening 100 years – for example, the way the frame is used to confine the boy, both physically and metaphorically – much of the emotional purchase of the image seems to be drawn directly from The Crawlers. Both concentrate exclusively on an individual whose plight embodies that of many others. Both contain intricate details that contribute meaning; in the Killip image, for example, the folds in the arm of the jacket amplify the agonized creases in the boy’s face. Perhaps this is testament to the point made by Thomson and Smith about the inherent veracity of traditional photography, which, despite the complexities of authorship, language and codification that have checked our mimetic complacency about the medium, retains its reliance upon observable objects to represent the world back to us with some measure of indexical authenticity.

It seems fitting, then, to end by looking again at The Crawlers, at one specific area of it where the formal interaction of three elements contributes powerfully to the overall meaning. I refer to the middle of the frame, where the woman’s head rests against the corner of the wall, which has a prominent horizontal line in it that ends at the point of contact near her temple – a play of lines that is reinforced by the severity of the centre parting in her hair. We must assume that Thomson achieved this confluence unwittingly. Nevertheless, it does prefigure the kind of compositional device that was to become part of the photographic language. Its connotations are those of mental incursion, the sense that her physical surroundings are having a direct and deleterious impact on her psychological state. To the modern eye, then, The Crawlers becomes a photograph of ideas. But this is secondary. What is more powerful, and harder to analyze and articulate, is the picture’s capacity to engage the viewer emotionally on every return (this viewer, at least). For the reasons explored above, and many more besides, it holds unique status within the history of social documentary photography, of the medium itself, and within my personal anthology.


Essay © Greg Leach, 2016



John Thomson, The Crawlers, 1877, Courtesy of the Museum of London

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936

Chris Killip, Youth on a Wall, Jarrow, Tyneside, 1976, Courtesy of Eric Franck Fine Art