Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Criminal Stories

"Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact." - Robert McKee.

I came across these mugshots and blogged about them in 2011, back when my images were tiny and ugly and didn't do any justice to the stories in these photographs, to the stories behind their eyes. I'm recycling the photos here again because during a trip through my photo files, I scrolled through them, bam, bam, bam, and was struck by those eyes, those smirks, those clothes, all over again. There are a million new stories in them that I didn't see before.

I met, interviewed and ran into Peter Doyle over and over again during a two year period some time ago. My interest in him was his work as a crime novelist. His reason for being out and about was putting together an exhibition on Sydney criminals. He spoke often of the many surprising stories and photographic treasures he'd unearthed and we saw glimspses of mugshots on powerpoint. Then he showed up in a doco, Recipe for Murder (ABC TV), talking about the now familiar rat-poison crime spree, where a rat plague turned many down-trodden, angry women into husband killers.

Peter wrote an article for SCAN: Journal of Media Arts Culture back in 2005, which is the credited source for these photographs (although they're supplied courtesy of Historic Houses Trust NSW and NSW Police Service). They're the most amazing collection of photographs, not just as historical documents, loaded with intriguing stories, but as works of art, as a strange contradiction between the official photographs taken by NSW Police and the gorgeous lighting, the harsh settings and the almost lovingly flattering framing. Between 1912 and 1930, these 'Special Photographs' are an aberration of police photography, straying from the traditional mugshot style that Australian police had been taking from the 1870s. There is background and context, full body shots and self-posing. There is nothing formal about them. What did Alfred 'Tiny' Ladewig do, who was he, that the police were happy for him to slump in his chair, hands stuffed in his pockets, while they documented him?

These ladies are a wonderful story waiting to happen. As Doyle mentions in his article, it seems as though they've just popped by the cells for a visit before a trip into town. What a lark it seems to them. Compared to the women in the photo at the very top, Vera Crighton, they look like regulars, like sisters, like friends, like secret keepers and story tellers. C Hall, D Morgan and J Taylor walked after this photo was taken, with no charges recorded for them.

The people in these pictures are criminals and innocent bystanders, violent offenders and naive waifs. They demand attention and shrink from it. They are cocky and despairing, aggressive and ashamed. As Doyle puts it, they seem to "fully occupy the picture space, to powerfully declare itself in the medium, to ‘overwrite’ the frame."

Their stories overwrite the frame, leaking beyond it back into the streets of Sydney. 


  1. Vera Chrichton has that wild look I recognise in myself. that one which says I HAVEN'T SLEPT IN FOUR YEARS GET YOUR OWN DAMN SANDWICH. This does not bode well.

  2. Those photos are haunting and I want to know more about them, I want to know their stories x


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