An 'Ever Recurring Controversy': John Thompson, W.J. Stillman and the Boot Blacks

Edwards, Stephen (2013). An 'Ever Recurring Controversy': John Thompson, W.J. Stillman and the Boot Blacks. In: Carter, Warren; Haran, Barnaby and Schwartz, Frederic J. eds. ReNew Marxist Art History. London: Art/Books.

URL: http://www.artbookspublishing.co.uk/renew-marxist-...

Abstract

This essay combines attention to the photographs made by John Thompson and published in Street Life in London (1877 and 1878) with archival research on a controversy presented in the photographic press, which centred on the ideas of amateur photographer and journalist WJ Stillman. Drawing on the figures of the boot black who appears in Thompson’s images and Stillman’s argument, I criticise the predominant Foucaldian accounts of the representation of poor street traders and suggest that the worker (shoe black) introduces a far more troubling perspective into these images and arguments. The division between mental and manual labour is thus seen to ground the rhetorics and practices of photography. The essay suggests that thinking through the ambivalence displayed by Thompson towards 'demoralised' labour might over another way of imagining the art/document couplet.

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