Focus shifts to fresh faces

Courtesy of the digital age, petty criminal Herbert Ellis has now become an international star. In real life he was a Sydney shop breaker of the 1920s who had his mug shot taken after one of his several arrests.

Courtesy of the digital age, petty criminal Herbert Ellis has now become an international star. In real life he was a Sydney shop breaker of the 1920s who had his mug shot taken after one of his several arrests.

His fashion sense, and what we'd now describe as attitude, made his portrait, captured on a glass negative, stand out among the other 130,000 found at the old Water Police headquarters in Sydney.

A series of 300 shots, taken from 1912 to 1948, formed the basis of the first City of Shadows exhibition at Sydney's Police & Justice Museum in 2005. Perhaps because of his passing resemblance to Warren Beatty in the 1967 movie Bonnie and Clyde, Herb was chosen as poster boy, appearing on the cover of the accompanying best-selling book.

Then something remarkable happened. The photographs, also available online, went viral. According to City of Shadows guest curator Peter Doyle, himself a crime writer, these curiously fascinating images of con men, pickpockets, cocaine addicts and prostitutes touched a nerve among viewers.

"To our pleasant surprise," he notes, "the public reaction wasn't one of horror but of interest, delight even." That delight was soon picked up by the influential New York fashion blog, The Sartorialist. Its response was that these photos taken by anonymous police photographers had as much style as anything by the top snappers.

Fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld agreed, as did Vogue editor Kirstie Clements, who wrote that one woman featured was "the quintessential Chanel woman".

That woman was Fay Watson, arrested in Crown Street, Darlinghurst, in March 1928. She was later convicted for possessing cocaine and fined £10.

More exhibitions and books were produced by the Historic Houses Trust (now Sydney Living Museums) before a representative of the Ralph Lauren fashion empire approached the trust in 2011 to ask if it could buy copies of some images.

Yes, it could. These inspired a new men's fashion range and 21 mugshots of obscure Sydney crims, including our Herb, graced the walls of Lauren's flagship stores in New York and London. Others followed.

The most recent example of a mug shot being recycled is of a crim known as "Shark Jaws", who reappears under the name of Sharkmouth on the cover of Russell Morris' successful new CD. The point is that these images, and thousands more yet to be digitised by museum staff, now have considerable value.

A new series of crime-scene photos covering the period 1954 to 1964, forms the basis of Suburban Noir, starting this Saturday at the Museum of Sydney. A book on the exhibition is planned for 2014.

Alice Livingstone, rights and permissions manager for Sydney Living Museums, says recent requests have ranged from photographic exhibitions in Poland and Sweden, to Mark Tedeschi's biography of Eugenia Falleni, a female murderer who lived as a man.

"We do not give or sell rights in the images themselves," she says. "We supply a digital file for an agreed fee, and for a one-off use only, after the application has been assessed for suitability in line with the policy regarding this material."

The fee charged depends on the intended use of the image. We can assume Ralph Lauren paid more for his mugshots than most. Copyright of photos is complex, but, in this case, all images were taken by police photographers in the course of their work, so remain the the property of the state. In general, copyright of images taken before 1955 has expired, and copyright in all images taken after 1955 resides with the Crown.

There is a thriving online trade in mugshots, mainly in the United States, and this is now starting to take off here. US collectors happily pay thousands of dollars for series of mugshots compiled in books, as found in most US cop shops in pre-digital days. Doyle has seen these listed online for as much as $US6000.

Such books were less common here but, given the ongoing City of Shadows phenomenon, individual prints would still be of considerable value.

That value depends largely on who is depicted in the shot.

So how much would a mugshot of Squizzy Taylor be worth?

"Oh, he'd be worth a motza," says Doyle.

The new Suburban Noir exhibition, featuring images from the NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive, starts November 30 at the Museum of Sydney until April 2014. The latest City of Shadows exhibition is also on at the Justice & Police Museum in Sydney.

To see a gallery of images from the City of Shadows and Suburban Noir exhibitions go to

theage.com.au/money.

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