Jack London: From ‘The Call of the Wild’ to the call of photography
posted Friday, March 8, 2013 at 5:00 PM EDT
"You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club."
-- Jack London
Jack London (1876-1916) is one of the America's best known and most prolific writers. He is famous for novels such as "The Call of the Wild" and "The Sea Wolf," but is hardly known for his work as a photographer. Yet in his lifetime he took nearly 12,000 photographs all over the world, covering news events as well as his personal adventures. That he was a photographer and one of the first photojournalists is something that doesn't get mentioned by most of his biographers.
In 2010, Jeanne Campbell Reesman and Sara Hodson published "Jack London, Photographer," a book that attempted to correct this oversight. With its publication of nearly 200 superbly printed duotone images, it demonstrated London almost had as much skill with a camera as he did with words. The images in the book were made from London's original negatives, housed in the California State Parks collection and from original photographs in his albums at the Huntington Library. The book was followed in 2012 by an exhibit of prints at the San Diego Maritime Museum.
Possibly the illegitimate son of a famous San Francisco astrologer -- who denied he had ever fathered a child -- London grew up shuffling between households in the city's working-class neighborhoods. He worked for a while as a sailor and then as a union organizer, writing political manifestos and leading labor strikes.
He made little from these first writings, but soon enough became rich with his stories of man and nature after he joined the Klondike Gold Rush. Ironically, his most famous work "The Call of the Wild" made him very little money, because he had sold the rights to the novel to his publisher for a few thousand dollars. To London's chagrin, the first printing of 10,000 copies sold out in 24 hours.
London's early work as a photojournalist
The early 20th century was an exciting time to be a writer and photographer. After the Daily Graphic in New York City began to publish halftone photographs in the 1880s, a mass media revolution started. The world went picture crazy and soon every magazine and most newspapers were crammed full of photographs. This love of images made Mark Twain a celebrity and gave birth to photojournalism. Press barons such as William Randolph Hearst understood the power created by these new "picture stories" and Hearst used his image-packed newspapers to literally start the Spanish-American war in Cuba.
London made some of his earliest photographs in 1902, while visiting England. Walking around the city he was appalled by the conditions facing the homeless of London's East End. He took photographs and wrote a book about it, "The People of the Abyss." Many of these early photos were never published. Two years later, London photographed the Russo-Japanese War for the Hearst Syndicate, shooting images that showed the plight of thousands of refugees fleeing through snow covered battlefields.
London the writer understood that photographs could enhance the material he was writing. He got a chance to demonstrate this when Collier's magazine asked him to cover the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. In 1905, London and his second wife Charmain had bought a 1,000-acre ranch in Glen Ellen, Calif., near the Sonoma Mountains. The couple was able to get to the city a few hours after the quake, while it was still burning. It was the firestorm that followed the quake that actually destroyed most of the city. However, as awful as it was, Charmain London could still describe the moment as such: "Mate and I spent night in burning streets... terrific experience. Napped on a doorstep till dawn."
Photographing "his fellow human beings"
Although he had became famous through his tales of the Far North, Alaska and the Klondike Gold Rush, once he was established, London and Charmain set out in the opposite direction -- South. In 1907 he told newspaper readers that he planned to sail off across the Pacific on a 42 foot sailboat called the Snark. In typical Jack London style he noted that he planned to teach himself navigation along the way as they sailed to Hawaii.
As a photographer London's images are unique for their time -- modern and very graphic -- the type of images we associate today with photojournalism. It was a far cry from the often sentimentalized and stereotypic images that were popular in the day. Indigenous South Pacific islanders and Asians were most often portrayed as exotic and childish, or sometimes as ignorant and evil cannibals.
Sara Hodson, co-author of the book and curator of the San Diego exhibition says of London's photography: "(He) embraced photography as "a way of creating art and documenting his adventures, 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. We can see he was empathetic with people of other cultures in his photography. He never photographed islanders as 'types' as an anthropologist might. He was bonding with fellow human beings."
Armed with his trusty Kodak 3A
London's Kodak 3A was state of the art for its day. The camera used 122 roll film, and had a bellows/rail focusing system. Framing was done with a right-angle prism mounted on the left-hand lens post. This allowed the camera to be shot, as Hodson says, from waist level. Typically using this type of camera, once the shot is framed and focused, the photographer can look up and make eye contact with his subject, thus establishing a more intimate image. The Kodak 3A camera was a great picture taker. Its combination of a very sharp lens and large 3 ¼ inch negative produced extraordinary images. In fact, Kodak 3A cameras have remained popular and hobbyists still modify it to take 120 roll film to produce gorgeous 2 1/4 x 3 1/4" negatives.
Throughout his 30s, London continued his newspaper work, traveling the world and writing stories. For example, he covered the 1914 U.S. invasion of Veracruz during the Mexican Revolution. Then after a long visit to Hawaii, London returned to his California ranch in July of 1916. He was suffering from terrible abdominal pain from what was diagnosed as kidney failure. London began taking morphine for the pain and on November 22, at age 40, he died from what was apparently an accidental overdose.