City of Shadows - Sydney Police Photographs 1912-1948
Peter Doyle with Caleb Williams
Thames & Hudson
THE BULK of the glass plate negatives and other photographic records had been created by the police as a ‘visual’ forensic evidence, common enough today, but still an embryonic science just before the Great War.
The images are themselves an unemotional study of the criminal fringes of Sydney society, and it is a regret that the police notations that accompanied them, referenced by index numbers scratched onto the plates, have long since vanished. That said, the equally extraordinary research carried out by Peter Doyle, involving closely examining every single negative and his extrapolations from the photographic evidence, makes fascinating reading. Inhabitants of modern day Sydney will not doubt gape at the sand strewn scrawniness of their now sleek and glittering city, as it is depicted in the 1930s, and they are fortunate in being able to examine the many surreptitious, candid street scenes, photographed to what purpose? We can only imagine. The crime scenes themselves are curiously barren, factual shots of a location devoid of a human presence - unless as a record of a homicide, whereupon the victims are frequently shown in situ. These latter images are in a minority and the bulk of the photographs, by far, are portraits of various miscreants, taken at the central lock-up. And a terrifying collection of individuals - both men and women - they look too, reminiscent of every Chicago gangster mug shot you might bring to mind. However, thanks to Doyle’s meticulous cross reference with available police records, it is revealed that these desperados are mostly detained for petty theft and burglary. The women seem, predominantly, to be arrested for possession of cocaine (surprisingly) or an involvement with illegal abortions. Hardly the stuff of bush-ranger legend.
Whilst the anonymous police photographers were busy capturing a factual report of the particular incident, accident, homicide or other crime scene, they coincidentally created a cultural document that can be read on many levels. Without any pretension to ’art’, these images transcend the mere commonplace - and soul-less documentary style of the ’record’ - and engage the reader in a sociological event more compelling because of its lack of artifice and sophistication. The parades of detainees, regularly photographed in groups (presumably to save on film and processing) often take on the genial atmosphere of a ‘school-photo’. And the universal fashion of the day for suit, waistcoat, tie and trilby hat - no matter how stained and shabby - offers an almost theatrical, and somewhat dapper, appearance to the men staring back into the lens. A book to fascinate Australia - as riveting as Weegee and with the all the clinical clarity of Eugene Atget.