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Through the Lens of Jack London

By Caroline Kim-Brown | HUMANITIES, March/April 2006 | Volume 27, Number 2

Just before dawn on April 18, 1906, Jack London awoke to the furious shaking of the earth beneath his bed. Startled, he and his wife Charmian quickly surveyed the damage to their Glen Ellen ranch, then with the sun rising, rode horseback to the top of nearby Sonoma mountain. From fifty miles away, they witnessed the amazing spectacle of San Francisco burning.

Jack London wrote, "An hour after the shock, from a high place in the mountains, we could see at the same time the smoke of burning San Francisco and of burning Santa Rosa. Caught a train to Santa Rosa--Santa Rosa got it worse than S.F. Then in the afternoon, Wednesday afternoon, we got into San Francisco and spent the whole night in the path of the flames--you bet, I saw it all."

Armed with cameras, Jack and Charmian wandered through the burning city, taking pictures of the devastation, talking to survivors, even floating on a small boat to survey the damage from out in the harbor. London, who had been born in San Francisco thirty years earlier, then wrote the first published account of the earthquake for Collier's.

"Not in history has a modern imperial city been so completely destroyed," reported London. "San Francisco is gone. Nothing remains of it but memories and a fringe of dwelling houses on its outskirts. Its industrial section is wiped out. Its business section is wiped out. Its social and residential section is wiped out. The factories and warehouses, the great stores and newspaper buildings, the hotels and the palaces of the nabobs, are all gone."

The fire that followed caused more damage than the initial quakes, great as they were. "Within an hour after the earthquake shock, the smoke of San Francisco's burning was a lurid tower visible a hundred miles away. And for three days and nights this lurid tower swayed in the sky, reddening the sun, darkening the day, and filling the land with smoke," wrote London.

London took dozens of pictures that day--stark photographs of cobbled streets ripped in half, houses toppled and leaning against each other, half-burned buildings with flames shooting out of every window. Smoke creeps into each frame from every side, and everywhere are great piles of debris. "An enumeration of the buildings destroyed would be a directory of San Francisco," London wrote. "An enumeration of the buildings undestroyed would be a line and several addresses."

London's photographs of the earthquake's aftermath are forthcoming in a book titled Human Documents: The Photography of Jack London, edited by Jeanne Campbell Reesman and Sara S. Hodson. Also included will be London's photographs of Korean refugees from the Russo-Japanese War, the disappearing peoples of the South Seas, the poor and homeless of London's East End, the Mexican Revolution, and the Dirigo, one of the last four-masted sailing vessels, as its perilously rounded Cape Horn.

In his short life--he lived to just forty--Jack London was many things: writer, seafarer, Klondiker, reporter, pamphleteer, socialist, philosopher, businessman, farmer, and photo-journalist. "We have about twelve thousand photographs in the Jack London papers," says Sara Hodson, curator of Literary Manuscripts at the Huntington Library, "and they're absolutely phenomenal." Though many were published during London's lifetime in newspapers and in some of his books, most have not been seen by the public since.

Jeanne Campbell Reesman, the Ashbel Smith Professor of English at the University of Texas at San Antonio, was surprised when she stumbled upon the pictures while working on a different book. "I found the photos so compelling," she says. "The actual prints of the photographs are stored in the Londons' albums that he and his wife pasted together. There are hundreds of those. They were in a vault and people weren't allowed to access them because they're fragile."

Together Reesman and Hodson looked at all twelve thousand prints. "We were just astonished at what was there," says Reesman. For the book, they chose 120 images from significant episodes in London's career as the best representative examples of his work.

"These are no tourist shots," says Hodson. "He became really a fine amateur photographer who did professional caliber work and who could have been recognized as a professional photographer if he had chosen to put all of his efforts in that direction. If you see his photography, his shots are carefully crafted."

In 1902, the American Press Association asked London to report on the Boer War in South Africa. On his journey there, at a stopover in England, he discovered that the war was already over. Equipped with one of the first portable cameras, London decided to stay in England and work on a book that would expose the London slums, the notorious East End.

"He went and rented a room and bought old beat up clothes," says Reesman, "and he pretended to be a sailor who went AWOL." London wanted as close a view of life in the East End as he could manage. He visited sweatshops, the workhouse at Whitechapel, and stood in line for four hours with seven hundred men waiting for a free breakfast from the Salvation Army. "He hung out with them, he worked with them, he sat out on the street with them," continues Reesman. "And he took pictures of them. They're just amazing photos. He had a really strong compositional eye."

"He'd been interested for a long time in the plight of the poor," says Hodson. "He had really been a self-educated, self-launched writer. And he was always very proud of the fact that he had educated himself, pulled himself up by the boot straps. But he always had an abiding concern and empathy for the poor and downtrodden, the people who had no way to get ahead, who would simply live the life of what he called the "work beast," performing manual labor for not much money, never able to get ahead, always worn down, ground down."

Writing feverishly, London completed The People of the Abyss in just a few short months. In it, he wrote, "The London Abyss is a vast shambles; no more dreary spectacle can be found. The color of life is gray and drab, everything is hopeless, unrelieved, and dirty. Bathtubs are a thing totally unknown; any attempts at cleanliness become howling farce. Strange, vagrant odors come drifting along the greasy wind; the Abyss exudes a stupefying atmosphere of torpor which wraps about the people and deadens them." Included in the book are photographs of the poor that he writes about so passionately--women sleeping on benches, shawls over their faces to keep from the cold, and groups of men of all ages, faces lean and hungry, waiting for breakfast which will be served along with a sermon about the feast awaiting them in Paradise.

Frustrated in his attempt to cover war as a journalist in 1902, London jumped at the chance to report on the Russo-Japanese War for Hearst newspapers two years later. But there too, his efforts were thwarted. The Japanese wanted to keep journalists far from the actual fighting taking place, so all war correspondents were kept in Tokyo where they were treated to sightseeing trips and banquets. London, however, had come to see war and would not be distracted. Ever the adventurer, on his own initiative, he found his way to Korea by chartering a native junk to sail across the Yellow Sea in freezing weather. In a letter he wrote, "The wildest and most gorgeous thing ever! If you could see me just now, a captain of a junk with a crew of three Koreans who speak no English. Made Kun San at nightfall, after having carried away a mast and smashed the rudder. We arrived in the driving rain, with the wind cutting like a knife."

R. L. Dunn, a photographer for Collier's described London upon arrival. "When London arrived at Chemulpo I did not recognize him. He was a physical wreck. His ears were frozen, his fingers were frozen, his feet were frozen. He said he didn't mind his condition so long as he got to the front. I want to say that Jack London is one of the grittiest men it has ever been my good fortune to meet. He is just as heroic as any of the characters in his novels."

"The Russo-Japanese War is probably what made him known around the world as a journalist," says Reesman. "Because he was the only correspondent that actually reached the front lines, and he saw this famous battle at the Yalu River."

Most of the time, the Japanese made sure to keep London behind the line of action, despite London's best efforts. Some of his most compelling photographs from the war are of Korean refugees, dressed in white, showing the devastating plight of war on civilians. There is one especially poignant shot of a young girl, perhaps six or seven, carrying a younger sister on her back, a bandage covering the younger girl's hand, a terrible, worried expression on her sister's face.

From 1907 to 1909, London and his wife sailed with a small crew on his sailboat, the Snark. Their first stop was Hawai'i where they were invited to visit the leper colony at Molokai by Doctor Will Goodhue. For a week, the Londons bravely lived with the lepers, shooting rifles with them, attending horse races, and celebrating the Fourth of July.

"He took these amazing photographs of the lepers," says Reesman. "Back then people thought of them as cursed. He took pictures of them in their celebrations. They had a rodeo and singing contests. There are photos of a leper girls' choir. Their faces are so disfigured but they have on these immaculate white dresses with laces, and they're so proud. He wrote a piece that basically said this is not the pit of hell. These people are happy, as much as they can be, and they're people. They're not monsters. It was one of the first things anyone ever wrote about leprosy that tried to look at the human side of it."

From there the Londons continued to the South Sea Islands, including Tahiti, Bora Bora, Pago Pago, Fiji, and the Solomon Islands. They fished with the islanders, were entertained by native kings, and were even once surrounded by war canoes before being rescued. In the Marquesas Islands, London excitedly rode out to novelist Herman Melville's paradise of Typee, only to find the people there had been decimated by foreign diseases including tuberculosis, leprosy and elephantiasis. All the while, he was writing articles of his adventures for magazines. The stories and photos were collected in his book The Cruise of the Snark, one of the first glimpses Americans had into the lives of the South Sea islanders.

London was especially adept at taking portraits of people little seen in the West. In his photographs, he expresses the individual rather than a stereotype. Unlike anthropologists like Louis Aggasiz, whose work in Brazil often showed "natives" posed in rigid, "scientific" forms with fake backdrops, London chose instead to shoot close-ups and portraits of people in their own environments.

"The idea in his photos is to capture portraits of people going about their work and their lives," says Reesman. "That's really different from what every other photographer would do when they went to exotic places. He was trying to look at people as people. For most of his career, he's very interested in other cultures, and he takes these very sensitive portraits."

Hodson believes the success of London's portraits comes from his empathy for the people he encountered. "He's not simply recording," she says. "He's really trying to understand what the people are like, what their lives are like, and he's trying to portray that as much as he can in the photographs. It's anthropological, but it goes another step beyond that. So you get that sense of someone who was really interacting with the subjects of his photography."

London is perhaps best known as the author of The Call of the Wild and Sea Wolf. London revitalized American fiction at the turn of the century with his vigorous prose with his animated descriptions of nature and the graphic violence of men turning on other men or animals. London wanted to get at real life as it was lived. This searching quality is seen in his photographs.

Hodson believes the people in London's photographs understood this. "They knew that he was responding to them not simply as a photographic subject, but as a human being with many dimensions of humanity."

About the Author

Caroline Kim-Brown is a writer in Oakland, California.

Funding Information

Jeanne C. Reesman of the University of Texas at San Antonio received $40,000 in NEH funding to research Jack London's photography.