City of Shadows: Sydney Police Photographs 1912-1948 by Peter DoyleWhen Peter Doyle began gathering material for this book in early 2003 he resolved to look at every negative in the pre 1945 section of the archive. A year and a half later and with three quarters of the pre-war archive sill unsurveyed, he ceased closely reading all but a few document photographs. As Doyle explains:
“Exterior photographs reveal irreducible truths about the geology and natural history of the Sydney district” - for instance “the snake-infested sand dunes and treeless heathlands, the occasional Californian bungalow built on the white sand which drifts continually across roads and paths.” A Sydney landscape that has now disappeared into history.
“Sydney’s unrenovated social past is similarly revealed. Inner city streets and lanes are frequently unsealed, the sky a smudged, smoky grey. There is an evenly grimy quality to the back lanes, yards, sheds, garages and workshops...Kitchens are cramped and often makeshift looking...the streets and domestic backyards of the inner city are largely without flora.”
The collection includes, shots of streets without cars, car accidents themselves, empty homes (except for a dead body) a deserted hotel, mug shots of criminals or suspected criminals (their clothes and facial expressions in remarkable detail). One of the shots that haunts me is the body of a woman - all you can see is her stockinged, shoeless feet. A large coat has been thrown over her torso and head. She is at the bottom of a staircase and there is blood on the stairs. Did someone shoot her or push her down the stairs?
And what about the man and woman inside their house? There is a pool of blood near her head. His body is diagonally across and on top of hers. It doesn’t look like a murder suicide but then who killed them? It’s hard not to wonder what happened when the photographs you look at are so detailed and immediate. The interiors of the houses are so much more squalid than I expected and dreary but what a minefield for historians and historical novelists. There are so many details to explore - whole rooms and a parade of interesting fashions of those visiting Sydney’s Central Police Station. These photographs are both eerie and compelling. Thank God these negatives were rescued and have now been saved for all of us in the 21st Century to marvel at! As Caleb Williams writes so eloquently in Encountering the Archive:
“The experience of sitting alone in a museum loft disinterring personalities and destinies from brown envelopes covered by faded ink is fundamentally uncanny. And I have often felt a charged communication when an 80 year old mug shot retrieved from a dusty box materialises on the screen once the scanning software has worked it’s magical resurrection. Meeting eyes with this stern, resentful or bored image has given me the sense of having blindly trespassed on, or perhaps summoned up, a departed soul from the ether, with its own incredibly powerful aura.”
I’m sure every reader of City of Shadows will feel the same. I definitely did. Highly recommended for lovers of history.
City of Shadows: Sydney Police Photographs 1912-1948
Fifteen years on, the Historic Houses Trust has reproduced to stunning effect a selection of more than photographs from this extraordinary archive, casting a fascinating light on the shadowy underworld of inner Sydney in the years between the two world wars. Create an account or log in to read more and see all pictures. Subscribe for full access to The Eye of Photography archives! Explore how photography, as an art and as a social phenomenon, continue to define our experience of the world. Two offers are available. Remember Me.
The extensive collection of police forensic negatives casts a fascinating light on the shadowy underworld of Sydney between the wars. You will meet thieves, breakers, receivers, magsmen, spielers, urgers, gingerers, false pretenders, hotel barbers, shoplifters, dope users, prostitutes, makers of false oaths and the occasional murderer. Peter Doyle is a novelist, scholar and occasional curator at the same institution. That means your payment information is always protected, and never gets seen by anyone. Return any item within 30 days of delivery. Contact Us Need help?
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