A few weeks ago I talked about the Registry of Flashmen which was compiled by William Miles, a police commissioner who used the latest surveillance techniques of the 1840s to understand the local criminal class. Fast forward 80 years to the 1920s, and New South Wales police were still continuing to innovate in their recording and documentation of the local underworld.
Photography was an established technology by the 1920s, but the way the New South Wales police framed their subjects was a new development compared to the traditional mugshots used by police departments around the world.
Using photography to its full advantage, a natural form of portraiture was used to photograph identifying suspects, capturing the clothes, postures and attitudes of the men and women who were part of Sydney’s underworld. These photographs make compelling viewing.
These photographs became known as ‘The Specials’ because of their innovative framing. They form part of the New South Wales Police Forensic Photography Archive held in the collection of the Justice and Police Museum, part of Sydney’s Living Museums, and are an amazing resource for people looking not only at the history of crime, but of fashion, physical appearance and every day life in Sydney.
Most of the photographs were taken in Sydney’s Central Police Station, in the CBD to the north of the central court complex, where the police photographer made the most of the natural light in the station courtyard to capture sharp images on the glass negatives. Because the photos aren’t obviously taken in a police station or cells, meaning the naturalistic images could be used to show witnesses without necessarily biasing the viewer.
Photographs were full length, showing the clothing and posture of the men and women. Suspects clutch handkerchiefs, handbags, smoke cigarettes and carry on conversations. Some peer out from beneath hat brims. The personality of the subject can menace through the ages.
Associates and gangs were frequently photographed as a group. Portrait photographs from the chest up, with caps and hats removed, were also taken to accompany the full length images. A bentwood chair was often placed in the shot to give an idea of height rather than a yardstick of height or measure.
Basic details about the subjects of the photographs are inscribed on the negatives, and the team at Sydney Living Museums have been researching these people to tell their stories. Because the photographs are of suspects, the people in them weren’t always charged and this can make finding more information about them difficult. If they were charged, or involved in other crimes or misdemeanours, there can be a rich archive across various collections to drawn on and the stories they tell are fascinating.
You can see 130 candid mugshots in the current exhibition at the Museum of Sydney Underworld: Mugshots from the roaring twenties. The exhibition is open 7 days a week and runs until 12 August at the Museum of Sydney on the corner of Phillip and Bridge Streets (not the Justice and Police Museum closer to the Quay).
We also highly recommend spending time on the fantastic exhibition website here. With blog posts about individuals, information about how to read the information on the photographs and more, it provides an indepth look at this remarkable collection.
There are some great events planned around the exhibition as well, including floor talks, a special talk with the Museum’s Digital Assets curator Holly Schulte and academic and fine art photographer Enrico Scotece who will give an introduction to the history of portrait photography and recreate the unique Specials portraits using a vintage Eastman camera, and walking tours looking at crime around the Rocks and waterfront. Go to the Sydney Living Museum’s website here for more details and bookings.
Dr Lisa Murray is the Historian of the City of Sydney and the former chair of the Dictionary of Sydney Trust. She is the author of several books, including Sydney Cemeteries: a field guide. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity.
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