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Arthouse by accident

Followers of the The Latent Image blog will have gathered by now just how much we all love to meet the technical challenge and enjoy the wonderful aesthetic of large format photography. We are greatly inspired by the work of August Sander, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Ansel Adams - and all those many other photographers that have produced great works on medium and large format cameras...

In the Latent Image Studio, a 10x8 view camera is used by Josh to shoot a portrait of William

...Sometimes inspiration comes from the most unlikely places.

Australia’s Justice & Police Museum recently released a vast archive of 'mug shots' from the 1920s. The large format images of murderers, bigamists, bootleggers and prostitutes provide a fascinating glimpse into criminal life in the early 20th Century.

Burglar 'F Murray' looks like he has stepped straight off the set of a David Lynch movie... And cocaine dealer, May Blake has the company of a phantom character lurking in the background...

These pictures are wonderfully weird. They wouldn't look out of place in an arthouse photo exhibit... Many of these photographs are, in my opinion at least, truly accidental works of art - well, I say 'accidental' but maybe the police photographers of the time took some kind of artistic pride in their work. At the very least, many of the pictures certainly look to be actively celebrating their subjects.

These images are clearly not like today's 'mug shots'. The subtle tones and textures of some of the nicest photos reveal the detail that define large format images - but rarely the work of police photographers.

Curator of the archive Peter Doyle has devoted himself to exploring the collection -

"I've never seen photos like this, particularly for that period of time, and that's the big mystery: who was the photographer? And were they intending to be artful? Or sympathetic to the subjects? Why are some people smiling — ostensibly even proud?"

"These are “men and women recently plucked from the street, often still animated by the dramas surrounding their apprehension...”

"...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”.

The photographs were originally shot on glass plates and this, of course, lends so much to the lovely quality of the images. Today the large format camera is mainly the domain of the art photographer but in the 1920s it was the tool forensically recording every last detail... Even if that science sometimes had to be reconciled with the bizarre truths behind some of the images-

Annie Birkett certainly didn't notice anything odd when she married Harry Leon Crawford (pictured above). Imagine her shock when she discovered that Harry was actually a woman: real name Eugenia Falleni - who had been masquerading as a man since 1899.

...Annie announced to a relative that she had discovered "something amazing about Harry." Shortly thereafter, Annie disappeared. 'Harry' told the neighbours that she had 'run off with a plumber'. Eventually, a charred body was found in a Sydney suburb and identified as Birkett's. And Harry found him/herself in front of the police camera.

Donald Trump makes no secret of his persona and has taken great pride - and attempted to make political capital - out of his recent mug shot-

...But I'll stick with my gang -

They might be a bunch of vintage 'scallywags' but they look a whole lot more trustworthy than you, Mr Trump - the one and only former American president to sit for a mugshot.

Blog copyright matthew Whiteman February 2024

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1 Comment

Feb 21

Fascinating, thanks for sharing

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