In the late 1980s four tonnes of photographic material was rescued by the Historic Houses Trust (HHT) from a flooded Sydney warehouse. The 100,000 glass plate and acetate negatives — photos which had been taken between 1912 and 1960 and officially owned by the NSW Police Service — became a closed archive of crime photos.
Author, researcher and curator Peter Doyle was invited by the HHT to work on the archive and for three years he pored over a lightbox looking at thousands of images. “The photos were impossible not to look at.”, he said.
This research and collaboration with the curator of the Sydney Justice & Police Museum, Caleb Williams resulted in an exhibition called City of shadows: inner city crime and mayhem 1912-1948 which was held at the Justice & Police Museum in Sydney from November 2005 to November 2006. It focused on the earlier photos and this book was produced in association with it. Featuring many fine reproductions, the book contains a foreword by Peter Watts, former Director of the HHT and detailed, scholarly chapters by Williams and Doyle.
Given that these photos were forensic in purpose and were never intended for public distribution, the collection consists of police station and prison mug shots, crime scenes, car accidents and some shots of victims of crime including murder victims. It’s undeniable that these latter photos are graphic and shocking but their inclusion is not gratuitous as they tell an essential part of the historical story.
The day after he had been presented with the Ned Kelly Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010, Peter Doyle gave a session (The True Face of Crime) at the Melbourne Writers Festival. Hosted by Peter Lawrance, writer and a former partner in Melbourne crime bookshop Kill City, this session was my festival highlight.
In the Studio at ACMI on a Saturday afternoon we were transported back to a Sydney straight out of the film noir era. This time capsule was populated with the figures of Sydney’s underworld— dodgy, troubled, threatening-looking characters you wouldn’t want to run into in a dark alley or anywhere else for that matter. These people look as if they could have come directly from a film set and would be beyond any casting agency’s wildest dreams, but they’re the real deal. They were the flim flam men, murderers, gangsters, con men and women or ‘false pretenders’, street walkers, drug addicts, and card sharks of Sydney’s underworld.
As Doyle showed us a selection of haunting black and white images, so beautiful in their stark simplicity, complex in their mysteries as detectives’ notes which may have accompanied them had not survived, he spoke of the urge one gets to reassemble the stories behind them from the clues they offer – like so many scattered pieces of a puzzle waiting to be connected. He aptly described their quality as ‘sad and sombre’ and emitting ‘a gothic gloom in a literary way’ and when speaking to certain shots, referred to their ‘homicide vibe – a feeling that something really bad has happened there even though you don’t know what it was’.
Here was a nameless person, their life violently taken, their story asking to be told. Here was a desperate-looking woman with a lined, weathered face, staring pleadingly into the police photographer’s lens. Who was she and what had happened to her? Here were too many young faces with looks of knowing way beyond their years because they had already seen far too much. Who were these groups of dapper-looking men and well-dressed women posing defiantly for the camera as if they were on a Sunday afternoon outing? Doyle explained that the subjects are well-dressed because appearance was extremely important; the three piece suit and hat was a ‘passport’ to any world you needed to enter.
For me, the simplicity of the shots resonated strongly with the short literary form – just as a few objects depicted in a frame form the skeleton of a narrative; so, a few words can encapsulate a life. In one photo, a wooden chair lies on its side near a clothes line adorned with washing – this was the scene of an attempted suicide; a hat, possibly stained with blood, lies in a grassy field; an empty, tipped up pram leans against a wall.
Doyle explained that these photos are so rich in content because police photographers tried to get everything in focus, not like in professional photography. In this way, he says, the images are strangely modern considering their lack of agenda and actually resemble the most modern European photographers or street photography. In fact, to me, many of the mug shots taken in the ‘muster room’ at Sydney police station look more like posed studio portraits than the rough mug shots we see today.
Along the way, Doyle also gave us a potted history of Sydney’s crime world and on the lighter side, entertained us with some of the tricks of the trade of the most notorious con artists. When it came to question time, the only question I wanted to ask was: do you need a research assistant?
Six months later and I’ve finally bought the book and as I flip through it, I realise those eerie, evocative images of bygone faces, scenes and streets haven’t left me. As the saying goes: there are eight million stories in the Naked City.
I’d recommend City of shadows for those interested in true crime, Sydney’s history, the history of photography, research and working with archival collections.
Doyle’s other books, novels include: Crook Like Us, The Devil’s Jump. He won the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Crime Novel in 1997 for Get Rich Quick and in 1998 won the Ned Kelly Award for Best Crime Novel for Amaze Your Friends. He also curated the Crimes of Passion exhibition (2002-2003) at the Sydney Justice and Police Museum.
© Copyright Paula Grunseit 2011