Mug shot of Herbert Ellis. Presumed Central Police Station, Sydney, around 1920

Special Photograph no. 86. The precise circumstances surrounding this picture are unknown, but Ellis is found in numerous police records of the 1910s, 20s and 30s. He is variously listed as a housebreaker, a shop breaker, a safe breaker, a receiver and a suspected person. A considerably less self-assured Ellis appears in the NSW Criminal Register of 29 August 1934 (no. 206). His convictions by then include goods in custody, indecent langauge, stealing, receiving and throwing a missile. His MO includes the entry seldom engages in crime in company, but possessing a most villainous character, he influences associates to commit robberies, and he arranges for the disposal of the proceeds. It adds that he has the nicknames Curley – his hair is thinning – and Deafy, as he is by then quite deaf. He is seen leaning heavily on a walking stick in the later image.

This picture is one of a series of around 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 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.

Published in: Peter Doyle with Caleb Williams City of shadows: Sydney police photographs 1912-1948 — via Historic Houses Trust

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