Hiding in Plain Sight
The photojournalism of Jack London
Nearly 100 years after his death, Jack London remains one of America’s best known and most widely read authors. His classic novels, The Call of the Wild and White Fang, set in the heady days of the Klondike Gold Rush, are still standard reading for students around the world. The books headline a long list of novels, short stories and news articles that made London a celebrity in his day and a subject for literary scholars in the decades that have followed.
“This was a new dimension of his work for me,” said Reesman, who has written, edited or contributed to 40 books about London in the last 30 years. “Here is someone we all thought we knew very well.”
Yet until recently, a large piece of London’s legacy remained unknown. During his global travels as a war correspondent and adventurer at the turn of the 20th century, London became one of the very first photojournalists, using his then state-of-the-art Kodak folding camera to convey his stories with images as well as words. The pictures graced the pages of magazines like Colliers and Hearst Syndicate newspapers, giving Westerners some of their first glimpses into places like Korea and the South Pacific. He photographed the Mexican Revolution, the devastation of the San Francisco earthquake, a leper colony in Hawaii, the stark poverty of London’s East End, and his own sea voyages. For years, though, an extensive collection of Jack London’s prints and negatives were protected in the archives of the Huntington Museum and Library in California and the California State Parks’ Sonoma Barracks.
UTSA professor of literature Jeanne Campbell Reesman, one of the world’s leading London scholars, has at last pulled the wraps off that hidden treasure in a new book. Jack London, Photographer, by Reesman, Sara S. Hodson and Philip Adam, is the first major work to establish the celebrated author as an equally accomplished photographer.
“This was a new dimension of his work for me,” said Reesman, who has written, edited or contributed to 40 books about London in the last 30 years. “Here is someone we all thought we knew very well. Who knew he was a photojournalist? He was sort of hiding in plain sight.”
The book contains some 200 photographs, carefully selected from the 12,000 prints and negatives in the archives of London’s work. The photos are organized into chronological chapters that set the context and historical timeline for London’s experiences. Adam, an expert in historical photography, reproduced the selected photos as duotones from silver gelatin prints that he made from negatives and original photographs.
As the book came together, the quality of the reproductions stunned Reesman.
“No one, not even Jack London himself, has seen these photographs printed as fine prints,” she said. “These photographs, we hope, [will be] viewed as art.”
London was an adventurer with socialist leanings, nurtured during his youth in Oakland, California, when he worked hard labor jobs in a factory and a laundry. He left California in 1897 to spend a year chasing dreams of gold in the Klondike, then joined a whaling schooner that sailed through the Bering Sea. Those rugged experiences flavored his characters and plots when he returned to his roots and turned to writing. The Call of the Wild, published in 1903, propelled him to wealth and celebrity.
By that time, London had acquired one of the first models of film cameras, which made photographic equipment more portable and adaptable to a wide range of light conditions than earlier cameras that used plates instead of film. In 1904, London accepted an assignment from Hearst newspapers to write and photograph the Russo-Japanese war, his first adventure as a war correspondent and photojournalist.
London made most of his money writing fiction, but also turned his personal adventures into serials and nonfiction books. The People of the Abyss portrayed the wrenching poverty of life in London’s slums. The Cruise of the Snark, in which he chronicled his own 1907-08 voyage through the South Pacific islands, was the most heavily publicized adventure before aviator Charles Lindbergh’s flight to Paris 20 years later.
People and faces dominate London’s photographs, which he described as “human documents.” London understood the power of photographic images, and he treated his human subjects with care and dignity. His encounters with South Pacific peoples broadened his ideas of other cultures, Reesman said, and his photos portrayed them with a humanity and respect that few others at that time had accorded them.
London lived extravagantly and drank excessively, and the lifestyle took its toll. He died of kidney failure in November 1916 at the age of 40. He left a legacy of 20 novels, 200 short stories and 12,000 photographs that his survivors donated to California institutions for preservation.
Reesman has studied London and his writings since her college days. Yet she became aware of the full photographic collection only about a dozen years ago, when she and Hodson, curator of literary manuscripts at the Huntington, spent a summer preparing a museum exhibit about London’s life. Sitting in a conference room in the midst of that project, Hodson and Reesman found themselves discussing the vast quantity and quality of photographic material that London had produced.
“There are many portraits of indigenous people shown with a dignity that transcends the racial stereotyping that was so common in London’s era.”
Tarnel Abbott, San Francisco Chronicle
“We realized there were negatives available for some of the prints, and we looked at each other and said, ‘Well, why doesn’t somebody do a book about his photography?’” Reesman said. “And then our next thought was, ‘Well, why shouldn’t we do it?’”
The book was a true labor of love, pulled together over the course of a decade, using a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a COLFA Faculty Development Leave, and funding from various donors. Adam needed about $70,000 to reproduce the delicate negatives with the techniques that brought out the full depth and beauty of the black and white images.
Winnowing from 12,000 to 200 photographs was a painstaking process. Photos for the book were selected primarily for their artistic merit, but also for their historical context and what they reflected about Jack London himself. Many of the captions that accompany the photos were drawn from London’s own writings.
The project was rewarding on both a professional and personal level, Reesman said.
“This book has been a collaboration of friendship and every possible kind of partnership with Sara Hodson.”
After its publication last year, the book earned a favorable review from London’s great-granddaughter, Tarnel Abbott, who described the photos as “stunning.” The book and its photographs accurately portray London’s belief in the dignity of all humanity, she said.
“There are many portraits of indigenous people shown with a dignity that transcends the racial stereotyping that was so common in London’s era,” Abbott wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle. “His basic caring for humanity is evident; amid the war photographs are images of elders and children, looking back at us through time with curiosity and pride.”