Descend into Sydney’s seedy underworld. Lying beneath the surface of the Art Deco glamour, jazz and sophisticated society lurks a world of gangs, guns, vice and violence – welcome to the dark side of the Roaring Twenties.
UNDERWORLD: Mugshots from the Roaring Twenties is a remarkable new photographic exhibition revealing Sydney’s criminal hierarchy in the aftermath of World War I.
“This decade saw massive social upheaval and fast times bred new crimes”, says Nerida Campbell, Curator, Sydney Living Museums.
“Criminals moved into new markets including the illicit sale of alcohol and cocaine and the police had to employ every tool and technology available to keep up.”
Taken between 1920 and 1930, these compelling images of criminal bosses, plotters, bruisers, petty crimes, wayward youth and fallen soldiers were never intended to be seen by the public. Suspects smile, scowl and simper for the camera in poses of their own choosing unlike the deadpan stares found in conventional mugshots from around the world.
These images have attitude be it good, bad or indifferent. As well as capturing the subjects physical appearance, they show a hint of their personality; smoking, reading, chatting, slouched on chairs, holding handbags and often wearing stylish outfits.
After nearly 100 years, more than 2500 ‘Specials’ images have now been scanned and researched as part of the NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive held at the Justice & Police Museum.
Nerida Campbell continues, “The collection is mostly made up of glass-plate negatives that have been digitally scanned. The high quality of the material on which they were captured and the skill of the police photographer allows us today to see a wealth of unexpected detail.”
This unique collection has already garnered international attention, influencing fashion icons, artists, writers and producers from Karl Lagerfeld to the creators of the BBC Television series Peaky Blinders.
UNDERWORLD: Mugshots from the Roaring Twenties features over 130 images reproduced from the scanned original glass plate negatives. Accompanying the images are the backstories of the suspects revealing criminal activity, networks and some international links.
“The exhibition showcases a significant selection of these amazingly personal criminal portraits from the ‘Specials’ collection - most images have never been seen by the public,” says Adam Lindsay, Executive Director, Sydney Living Museums.
“These portraits capture humour, defiance, bravado, malevolence and vulnerability – emotions that speak directly to us as we view these incredible photographs.”
From serial offender Edward Banbury who stole a police motorbike and rode it all the way to Queensland to Gladys Lowe who was convicted for opium possession, all the mugshots are unusually candid, infused with personality, presence and poignancy.
“The ‘Specials’ are an intriguing social resource offering an insight into Sydney society and a broader reflection of similar issues experienced in cities around the world from London to New York, Paris and Berlin,” concludes Adam Lindsay.
“Sydney police did things differently in the 1920s - the ‘Specials’ images are simply like nothing else in existence anywhere in the world.”
The Albury LibraryMuseum hosts a diverse range of exhibitions year-round, with AlburyCity Museum Coordinator Emma Williams saying Council is delighted to bring this 'special' exhibition to Albury.
"We are so lucky to be able to experience this exhibition first-hand at our Albury LibraryMuseum. What an incredible opportunity to see these historic images up close and personal, and imagine what it was like to live during that period in time," she said.
The exhibition will be open from Saturday 13 August - Sunday 30 October 2022, with a launch event on Friday 12 August from 5.30pm. Book your tickets at for the launch event on the Humanitix website.
To see what else is on at the Albury LibraryMuseum, visit the AlburyCity website.