The photographer John Thomson (1837-1921) used the 'Woodburytype' process patented in 1864 for the images in Street Life in London, including this photograph. This was a type of photomechanical reproduction using pigmented gelatin, usually of a rich purple-brown colour. The process was complicated but remained popular until about 1900 because of the high quality and permanence of the finished images.
There was division and competition among boot-blacks (shoe-polishers) in the 19th century. They either worked independently or joined organisations known as the 'Boot-blacking Brigades'. The Boot-blacking Brigade movement was started in 1851 with 36 boys and grew to 385 members by the time this photograph was taken. The independent boot-blacks were often treated severely by the police, especially if they did not have a licence. The police would move along the boot-black, and might kick his box of polish and tools into the road where they would be broken by passing carriages. The boy shown in the photograph had served in the Boot-blacking Brigades before working independently. He planned to join the navy to escape life on the streets.
Real or Posed?
The people in the pictures were arranged or posed by Thomson to form interesting compositions. However, the results were often naturalistic because the subjects and surroundings were always authentic.