The Photographic Noir: Criminal Portraits from Sydney Police 1912-1948

Perhaps the least glamorous photography of the human subject is that of the police mug shot. Well, living subjects anyhow. Crime scene and autopsy photos may be less flattering still. Yet these beautiful vintage photographs—their glass-etched acetate negatives salvaged from the Sydney Police criminal archive in a flood and compiled by curators Caleb Williams and Peter Doyle—beg to differ.

The photographs that made the “cut” are published in The City of Shadows, which contains pages after pages of photographs with little guiding textual narrative. There is a strong scent of the film noir aesthetic on these portraits of murderers, gangsters, loan sharks, hustlers, prostitutes, drug addicts, and gamblers that walked the dark alleys of Sydney during that era.  There is a certain mystery and intrigue heightened by the image-driven format of the book. The second compilation, Crooks Like Us is more expository and incorporate police-recorded documents, testimonies, and confessions.

In the process of sorting through thousands of files, the curators became enchanted with the “insouciant faces staring back.” There is certainly style in the clothes, swagger in the poses, and devilishness in the smiles that set these images apart from most mug shots. There is something haunting, memorable, and almost sublime about them—even though the subjects led sordid lives.

Perhaps, this collection speaks to the criminal in us. And vice versa.

Browse the vintage criminal portraits gallery from The City of Shadows.

Did you know Alphonse Bertillon standardized the mug shot and crime scene photography? But that’s not all. Read about his significant contributions to fingerprinting and biometric research here.

You may also be interested in our feature series on Film Noir.

Images Courtesy of La boite verte.


  1. April Moore

    Wow, talk about some haunting images. What a fascinating book.

  2. Cathy Zhu Chen

    I’m glad you think so. I’m so visually enthralled by the range and depth of expressions—from troubled, intense close-ups to light-hearted candids. Who knew crime photographers were such true artistes back in the day!

  3. AngelicaJade

    These are amazing photographs and are actually great inspiration for the script I’m working on now. A very intriguing range of expressions like C.Z. Chen said.

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