Underworld: Mugshots from the Roaring Twenties

SLM Underworld Morrie Stuart Thomas, 3 February 1922 (detail)Revealing Sydney’s criminal hierarchy in the aftermath of World War I, Underworld: Mugshots from the Roaring Twenties – a remarkable new photographic exhibition on display at the Museum of Sydney from 9 December 2017.

Descend into Sydney’s seedy underworld. Lying beneath the surface of the Art Deco glamour, jazz and sophisticated society lurks a world of gangs, guns, vice and violence – welcome to the dark side of the Roaring Twenties.

“This decade saw massive social upheaval and fast times bred new crimes,” says Nerida Campbell, Curator Sydney Living Museums. “Criminals moved into new markets including the illicit sale of alcohol and cocaine and the police had to employ every tool and technology available to keep up.”

Taken between 1920 and 1930, these compelling images of criminal bosses, plotters, bruisers, petty crims, wayward youth and fallen soldiers were never intended to be seen by the public. Suspects smile, scowl and simper for the camera in poses of their own choosing unlike the deadpan stares found in conventional mugshots from around the world.

These images have attitude be it good, bad or indifferent. As well as capturing the subject’s physical appearance, they show a hint of their personality; smoking, reading, chatting, slouched on chairs, holding handbags and often wearing stylish outfits.

After nearly 100 years, more than 2500 ‘Specials’ images have now been scanned and researched as part of the NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive held at the Justice & Police Museum.

“The collection is mostly made up of glass-plate negatives that have been digitally scanned,” continue Campbell. “The high quality of the material on which they were captured and the skill of the police photographer allows us today to see a wealth of unexpected detail.”

This unique collection has already garnered international attention, influencing fashion icons, artists, writers and producers from Karl Lagerfeld to the creators of the BBC Television series Peaky Blinders.

Underworld: Mugshots from the Roaring Twenties will feature over 130 images reproduced from the scanned original glass plate negatives. Accompanying the images are the backstories of the suspects revealing criminal activity, networks and some international links.

“The exhibition showcases a significant selection of these amazingly personal criminal portraits from the ‘Specials’ collection – most images have never been seen by the public,” says Mark Goggin, Executive Director, Sydney Living Museums. “These portraits capture humour, defiance, bravado, malevolence and vulnerability – emotions that speak directly to us as we view these incredible photographs.”

From serial offender Edward Banbury who stole a police motorbike and rode it all the way to Queensland to Gladys Lowe who was convicted for opium possession, all the mugshots are unusually candid, infused with personality, presence and poignancy.

“The ‘Specials’ are an intriguing social resource offering an insight into Sydney society and a broader reflection of similar issues experienced in cities around the world from London to New York, Paris and Berlin,” added Goggin. “Sydney police did things differently in the 1920s – the ‘Specials’ images are simply like nothing else in existence anywhere in the world.”

Underworld: Mugshots from the Roaring Twenties
Museum of Sydney, Corner Phillip and Bridge Streets, Sydney
Exhibition: 9 December 2017 – 12 August 2018
Free admission – normal museum entry applies

For more information, visit: www.sydneylivingmuseums.com.au for details.

Image: Morrie Stuart Thomas, 3 February 1922 (detail) – courtesy of NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive / Sydney Living Museums