In the 1920s, NSW police began experimenting with stylised mugshots. Now, these photos provide an amazing insight into the secret lives of Sydney’s lawbreakers.
Back in the ’20s, New South Wales police were experimenting with a new style of mugshot. Rather than simply taking a picture, the photographers treated the mugshots more like a form of portraiture, capturing the clothes, postures, and attitudes of their subjects.
The photographs became known as The Specials. Now they’re exhibited at the Justice & Police Museum, one entity which makes up Sydney’s Living Museums. (If you haven’t heard of it, Sydney Living Museums is a collection of NSW’s most important historic houses and museums).
In the images, subjects are either captured alone or in groups, often holding things like handkerchiefs or handbags, or else smoking cigarettes. Each photo is accompanied by a caption which gives insight into the crime perpetrated and even the name of the suspect.
Curator Peter Doyle describes that, compared with the subjects of regular mugshots, “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.”