Underworld: Mugshots from the Roaring Twenties, which has just opened at the Museum of Sydney, is an exploration of crime in a decade that heralded the brave new world that emerged from the devastation of World War I.

Curated by the indefatigable Nerida Campbell this exhibition profiles some of the many men and women from Sydney’s seedy underworld who were at large across the city in the early twentieth century.

The exhibition focuses on the “Specials”: a collection of photographs taken by police photographers in a way that would not prejudice a person, looking at an image, against a suspect. These are not your typical mugshots. In these photographs, suspects hold handbags, papers, cigarettes and conversations. This approach allows at least a part of someone’s personality to be captured; thus, many of the images are like commissioned studio portraits, potentially destined to reside on a dressing table or mantelpiece. If the tell-tale marks of name, date and fingerprint classification were removed, many would be surprised to learn that these photographs were taken by police and that the subjects had been accused of many different types of crimes.

The exhibition designers have done wonderful work. The photographs — reproduced from glass plate negatives — have been presented in a way that provides a sense of the original object. The fragility of that medium offers a fabulous juxtaposition to the hard men and women captured in the negatives and has generated an elegant line of images, with glass serving as a subtle motif throughout the space.

The room for temporary exhibitions at the Museum of Sydney is small and has proven to be a challenging venue for previous installations. This effort, with over 130 photographs, is well laid out and the modest gallery even manages to accommodate a small, Art Deco-influenced, cinema. There is, too, an area set aside to don the attire of a felon of the 1920s and stand near a replica of a bentwood chair (used to gauge a suspect’s height) and take your own “mugshot”. It was crowded on opening night, but it was still easy to move around and to see everything that was on display. The text throughout is necessarily brief but is engaging and informative.

Usually the felons in the collections of Sydney Living Museums are sequestered at the Justice and Police Museum, on the edge of Circular Quay; a metonym for being on the edge of society. The decision to relocate these photographs from these surrounds to the Museum of Sydney might be seen as controversial by some who enjoy the criminal context provided by the old Water Police Station and Courts, but presenting this exhibition at the Museum allows the viewer to see these stories of criminals in new ways: to see these men and women as more like “us” and a little bit less like “them”. This line, that divides those who obey laws and those who are willing to break them, is further complicated by the quality of the images. Reconciling a beautiful photograph with the litany of crimes committed, from petty theft to sexual assault, can be challenging. Indeed, it can be difficult to turn away from some of the faces that stare through time, meeting the gaze of the photographer in the 1920s and, today, casually returning the stare of anyone interested in gangland Sydney of nearly a century ago.

It is easy to classify crime as cheap entertainment, but crime is complicated. Attempts to create a black and white world of ‘bad’ and ‘good’ does not explain crime today, it never has. Stories of crime — the criminals, the victims, the police — are all layered. There are narratives of bad people doing bad things; there are also, in many cases, backstories of abuse, poverty and single mistakes that have escalated into a career of criminal activity. Sometimes we will never know why. The social milieu of some did not facilitate the exposure of the truth. For others, the historical record is incomplete as details have been lost, or at least obscured. Underworld captures some of these complexities, offering a suite of dramatic as well as sophisticated stories.

There is a companion book and a website: both are worthy of exploration.

Review by Dr Rachel Franks, December 2017

Underworld runs until 12 August 2018 at the Museum of Sydney. Further details about the exhibition, associated talks and events are available on the Sydney Living Museums website: https://sydneylivingmuseums.com.au/underworld

 

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