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Jack London, Photographer

November 19, 2021
by the gentle author

Jack London took photographs alongside his work as a writer throughout his life, creating a distinguished body of photography that stands upon its own merits beside his literary achievements. In 1903, the first edition of his account of life in the East End, The People of the Abyss, was illustrated with over a hundred photographs complementing the text which were omitted in later reprints.

Homeless people in Itchy Park, Spitalfields

“In the shadow of Christ Church, Spitalfields, I saw a sight …

… I never wish to see again”

“Tottery old men and women were searching in the garbage thrown in the mud”

Drunken women fighting on a rooftop

Frying Pan Alley, Spitalfields

Before Whitechapel Workhouse in Vallance Rd

Casual ward of Whitechapel Workhouse

“Only to be seen were the policemen, flashing their dark lanterns into doorways and alleys”

Homeless sleepers under Tower Bridge

“For an hour we stood quietly in this packed courtyard” – Salvation Army Shelter

London Hospital, Whitechapel

In Bethnal Green

Working men’s homes, Wentworth St

A small doss-house

An East End interior

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At Frying Pan Alley with Jack London

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14 Responses leave one →
  1. November 19, 2021

    Rees-Mogg’s vision of perfection, when the lower orders knew theor place?

  2. Hilda Kean permalink
    November 19, 2021

    I have read the book several times over the years but have never seen photographs included.
    Where did you get the photographs?Are they in a Bishopsgate work? I would like to read this earlier version, Any suggestion ?

  3. November 19, 2021

    Even the bitterest poverty still has its aesthetic appeal in these pictures… Beautiful post.

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  4. November 19, 2021

    Such shocking poverty.

    Are ‘Working men’s homes, Wentworth St’ the Charlotte de Rothschild Model Dwellings?

    If so I have a double interest as they were designed, pro bono I think, by my g-father N S Joseph for the ‘4%’. Another unrelated g-g-father, Lazarus Joseph, is in the 1871 census as living at no 8, perhaps demolished to be replaced by the Charlotte de Rothschild Model Dwellings.

  5. November 19, 2021

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, wow, I never knew that Jack London had made a study of the London poor back in 1903. He remains one of America’s greatest writers. I strongly recommend reading his work for those unfamiliar with his genius. Start with CALL OF THE WILD. I taught it for years – never tied of it.

    His account of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 is a fascinating read too.

  6. November 19, 2021

    These are the similar memories I have ve of Whitechapel.

  7. paul loften permalink
    November 19, 2021

    Thank you for remembering Jack London . Its inspiring, for anybody alive today, just to read about his incredible life. The Call of the Wild and White Fang are simply wonderful books that you have to read from cover to cover . Only someone with great empathy and feeling for humanity and life could have written such books. The photos say it all.

  8. Mark permalink
    November 19, 2021

    Didn’t he take interesting photos as well.
    Nothing changes in Tory England.
    Revolt!

  9. November 19, 2021

    The way things are going, especially with the “levelling-down” being applied to London, we are going to need another Mayhew or J London, to record “London Life & London Poor”

  10. Philip Marriage permalink
    November 19, 2021

    These are remarkable photos but should be viewed with caution – Jack London could certainly spot a good story and spin it well but his photography (and I suspect his storytelling) was quite selective.

    If you view all the photos he took in 1902 [ https://hdl.huntington.org/digital/collection/p16003coll7/id/3199/rec/6 ] you will see a more rounded picture. It seems to me that he photographed the life of the East-End ‘poor’ then focused on those who found themselves below even the very bottom of the ladder.

    Some of these photos are clearly posed – the policeman with the flashlight, the ‘Drunken women fighting on a rooftop’ are just two examples. On a rooftop I ask you! How come he just happened to be passing by a rooftop with a camera and tripod?

    Perhaps the saddest photo of all ‘Tottery old men and women were searching in the garbage thrown in the mud’ shows street hawkers selling their wares on the streets. He’s cropped off another elderly hawker selling what looks like boxes of matches. This same chap appears in a different photo taken in Leicester Square, to contrast the difference between the rich and the poor. There’s another showing a woman shopping in Bethnal Green, then in a different photo the same woman, same pose exactly. These illustrate a degree on collusion between the photographer and his subjects.

    There’s no doubt that the misery and abject conditions he reported could be found all too easily in that area at that time (and even today) but it should not be assumed that everyone lived like this.

  11. November 19, 2021

    The photos are included in the edition of abyss published by tangerine press and L13 in 2014.

    A really nice edition of the book put together with care and attention, I read it recently having found my brand new copy in a pile of mostly french language books dumped in the street just before rainfall a couple of years ago.
    Appropriately found on the street in hackney as well (and printed in clerkenwell)

  12. Peggy permalink
    November 20, 2021

    The pictures are a fine accompaniment to Jack London’s words. My family is from Stepney and my childhood was spent there. Jack’s book ‘ People of the Abyss’ made me cry for my ancestors and all those around them. These days I write their stories – stories of sadness and loss (mortality rates that shock) but also stories of hope and success and love.

  13. Cherub permalink
    November 20, 2021

    Interesting photos, but I agree with an earlier poster that one or two may have been staged.

    A few years ago I watched a series where people had to live like the Victorian poor, some on the very bottom rung of the ladder. It showed how doss houses worked, if you couldn’t afford a bed for the night there was a bench all the way along one wall with a rope in front of it. People slept there (or perhaps I should say tried to sleep) sitting up and the rope was to stop them falling forward or off the bench!

  14. Richard permalink
    November 22, 2021

    I read Call of the Wild and White Fang at my prep school in the 1960s along with authors such as G A Henty and Captain Marryat. I suppose these books were approved for the boys of those days. Less read now though.

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