The ‘special photographs’

July 11, 2013 at 10:15 am

This collection of portraits on around 2500 glass plate negatives (plus some cellulose negatives) documenting police suspects, offenders and detainees was created by New South Wales Police Department photographers between 1910 and the early 1930s. Designated ‘special photographs’, to distinguish them from the genre of prison mug shots, they were mostly taken in the cells at the Central Police Station, Sydney and are, as curator Peter Doyle explains, of ‘men and women recently plucked from the street, often still animated by the dramas surrounding their apprehension’.

Doyle suggests that, compared with the subjects of prison mug shots, ‘the subjects of the Special Photographs seem to have been allowed – perhaps invited – to position and compose themselves for the camera as they liked. Their photographic identity thus seems constructed out of a potent alchemy of inborn disposition, personal history, learned habits and idiosyncrasies, chosen personal style (haircut, clothing, accessories) and physical characteristics.’

These beautiful, evocative portraits follow few conventions of the standard mug shot photograph. This collection include portraits of well-known Sydney identities, including John Frederick ‘Chow’ Hayes and Guido Calletti, notorious criminals active in Sydney’s razor gang era.

Once their portraits and fingerprints had been recorded our subjects would have proceeded through the system to be released without charge, kept in remand or released on bail. Some would have pleaded guilty straight up, hoping for a lesser sentence. Others would have been found guilty by a jury or a magistrate, despite their protestations; virtually all of them would have been given prison sentences. However, many sentences would have no sooner been handed out than declared suspended by the judge or magistrate.

Some subjects were repeat offenders, and we find their names in police records and newspaper reports again and again, sometimes over many decades. A small number achieved notoriety in their time. But, generally, the subjects of the Special Photographs make only one or two fleeting appearances in the records. Some have left little more than a single amazing photograph. At the time these portraits were taken personal identity was a fluid, indeterminate thing. People drifted in and out of the lives and affairs of others, often never to be heard of, or from, again. Names were freely invented and changed. An individual’s origins and history could not be easily checked and, indeed, perhaps were not often sought. The sense of trustworthiness that a man or woman communicated in the flesh counted for much, and if you could fake that, as they say, you had it made.

Underworld characters, in particular, were often known by various aliases, and many were known by different names in different states. The identities of the men, women, boys and girls captured on these glass plate negatives are especially tricky. The records that originally accompanied the images, the detectives’ notes, the written details of the cases and the cross-references to other police files have all been lost. We have only the visual likeness and the shaky inscription to tell us who is in the picture and why they are there.

Despite all that, a surprising number of men and women associated with the criminal milieu more or less stayed put. They would be arrested again and again and charged repeatedly, under the same name, for more or less similar offences. A few seem to have relished their court appearances and the attendant publicity. The careers of such characters prove less difficult to trace. But many of those featured in [Crooks like us] were professional shape-shifters. They were tricksters, dissemblers, midnight rovers, fly-by-night merchants and self-reinventors – experts at fictionalising their own origins, espousing principles they didn’t uphold, predicting unlikely and impossible outcomes and laying false trails. But they made a slight mistake or misjudgment, and fell into the hands of the detectives. They were arrested and charged. Their photo was taken. They got bail. They melted back into the world. All that remains is their likeness on a glass plate and a dubious ID.

From: Peter Doyle, Crooks like us p19, Historic Houses Trust of NSW, 2009.