Take a virtual tour of this real-life shooters’ gallery

You may think of the mug shot as the zero degree of portrait photography—no more than a process, an activity not unlike delousing, only superficially connected to the art practiced by Nadar and Steichen and Avedon. And that is true in perhaps 90 percent of cases. But over the course of time, there have here and there been photographers who brought to the process an extra dose of insight that might be called art. In the early twentieth century, the police in New South Wales, Australia, had such an artist—or artists (no names have survived).

Unlike the mug-shot convention of portraying the subject head-on and in profile, the protocols were much looser, so that the accused were sometimes pictured once in close-up and once full-length. And the setting was often a courtyard with a skylight, which softened the contrast. Most important, though, the person behind the camera was someone who recognized the humanity of the varied persons who appeared before the lens, who were sometimes monsters and sometimes innocents, but all of whom deserved consideration. (If not always sympathy; in some shots the photographer apparently declared his or her distaste for the subjects by positioning them in front of the toilets.)

The results are extraordinary—not just a panoramic view of the Sydney underworld of the 1920s and ’30s but a catalogue of astounding faces, fully and spontaneously reacting to someone on the other side of the lens. The Australian historian and crime novelist Peter Doyle put these photographs in eloquent context, with considerable and often unexpected detail, in his books Crooks Like Us (2009) and City of Shadows (with Caleb Williams; 2007), but thanks to the French website La boite verte, you can see a glorious selection today. (By the way, the gentleman in the hat and suit jacket trying on a full-length organdy skirt is in fact a policeman.)

—Luc Sante is the author of Kill All Your Darlings, Evidence, Folk Photography, and Low Life.

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Take a virtual tour of this real-life shooters’ gallery