City of Shadows – Vintage Mug Shots


Walter Smith glowers at us across the temporal void, from a police station somewhere in Sydney, Australia, 1924.  His craggy face communicates much about the type of man he might be – the flinty eyes shadowed beneath a prominent brow,  the nose ruined  by fist, wood or brass, in the mouth the hint of a sneer. The record doesn’t say why Walter has been apprehended, leaving us to peer back at him through our prejudices and judge by his appearance alone. Was he a cruel, boorish oaf of a violent disposition? Or simply a victim of circumstance, who had suffered an unforgiving life, habitually in liquor, now standing in the lock-up because petty theft was the only option left open to him. If only he could speak to us now in his defense.

Below is May Russell, also a mystery. Her appearance and demeanour arguably more striking than Smith’s by it’s contrast to his. A freckled, handsome if not attractive face, thin-lipped and frowning at her current predicament. May is slightly folorn in the accompanying full-length photo, clutching a handbag. Her smart, almost prim ensemble at odds with the stained, austere space. A middle-class kleptomaniac? Or a contemporary of Walter’s, employing a carefully constructed camouflage,  her sole intent to defraud.

Perhaps her story will eventually be revealed by “From the loft“, a new blog out of the Justice & Police Museum, NSW, Australia.


These evocative images of May & Walter are just two from approx 2500 “special photographs” taken by New South Wales Police Department photographers between 1910 and 1930.

These “special photographs” were mostly taken in the cells at the Central Police Station, Sydney and are, as curator Peter Doyle explains, of “men and women recently plucked from the street, often still animated by the dramas surrounding their apprehension”. Doyle suggests that, compared with the subjects of prison mug shots, “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.””

I’ll leave this photo alone to tell it’s own story. If you can suggest a possible matching scenario, email it to me and I will publish it at a later date.

Alas, Smith and Jones:


Mug shot of Thomas Sutherland Jones and William Smith, 15 July 1921, Central Police Station, Sydney.

6 responses to “City of Shadows – Vintage Mug Shots”

  1. Annette says:

    I love this photo. It makes me think of my father who would have been about the age of Mr Jones there at that time. I reckon these two blokes are Irish Catholics and disturbed the peace in some political way. Perhaps they’re Bolshi. And even if they don’t look related I feel like they are because the older man appears to be taking charge of the situation with a protective stance in front of the younger man. He’s tough and experienced. Neither appears at all surprised at their arrest.

  2. Bearded Dave says:

    Wow, those photos are intense. Good find!

  3. […] are the vintage mugshots. The are intense! There are some more pictures and background info on TrAcEy’s blog. Apparently, those mugshots were taken by the New South Wales Police Department photographers […]

  4. Erica says:

    the worry is..I found this whilst googling some family names for my genealogy – one of the names I’m looking for was Thomas Sutherland Jones….right time, right place but right man? who knows…would be good to find out more than just his crime

  5. I am looking forward to reading your book which was recommended to my by a friend of yours (a muso). Dad grew up in the ‘Loo in the 30s and I am hoping to find a photo of either him or his associates ..Lynne Komidar

  6. Martin Smith says:

    Lynette, I’m not the author. Follow this link to find the book. I’ve got a copy myself and I recommend it highly:

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