Jack London stories told with a camera

Jack London is best known as a writer of red-blooded adventure tales. But he was also a journalist, traveler, social activist -- and prolific photographer.

“People might hear this and think we’re talking tourist snapshots,” says Sara S. Hodson, one of three co-authors of “Jack London: Photographer” (University of Georgia Press, $49.95). “However this wasn’t an idle hobby. He took thousands of pictures and created a serious body of work.”

Hodson is curator of literary manuscripts at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, where she administers its extensive London archive. A decade ago, she and Jeanne Campbell Reesman, a London scholar and professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, were choosing images for an exhibit in France. The women realized that although London’s photographs were available to researchers, they usually were used to support critical studies or illustrate articles. Some of the images also had appeared in his books or with his news and magazine accounts. “But no one had focused on the pictures themselves,” Hodson says. They decided to do just that.

Hodson and Reesman reviewed the Huntington’s 12,000 photographs and 4,000 negatives in the California State Parks collection. Their 200 or so selections were reproduced as duotones from silver gelatin prints made by Philip Adam, a photographer and specialist in preservation of historical photographic collections.


The breadth of the book shows how far London would go for a good story. It begins with his 1902 stay in London’s bleak East End, whose residents’ plights he captured in the nonfiction “The People of the Abyss.” Two years later, he was in Asia reporting on the Russo-Japanese War. And when the 1906 earthquake struck, London and his wife, Charmian, traveled from their Sonoma Valley ranch to San Francisco to record the devastation. In 1907, the couple set sail on their two-master, the Snark, and visited Hawaii, Samoa and other Pacific locales. Later journeys took London around Cape Horn and to Mexico to cover the revolution.

London, who died at 40 in 1916, embraced photography as “a way of creating art and documenting his adventures,” Hodson says. He was a quick study who, among other things, learned to shoot with his Kodak 3A camera level -- which helped him “engage his subjects directly and closely.” While some of his views on race have stirred controversy, Hodson says, “We can see he was empathetic with people of other cultures in his photography.” In the South Seas, “he never photographed islanders as types as an anthropologist might. He was bonding with fellow human beings.”

“His photography and writing bolster each other,” Hodson adds. “They give us a more complete picture of the artist.”