Flashers and scammers: Mugshots show different side of Sydney's lowlife

For some criminal suspects, it was their first photo.

Seeming oblivious to the fact that their portraits were being taken in Central Station's police lock-up after they'd been arrested, the 2500 police suspects from Sydney's roaring '20s mugged it up for the camera.

They grinned and posed, unaware that these images would inspire filmmakers and artists 100 years later, and even fund an expansion of Sydney's Justice and Police Museum.

Dressed in hat, fur and pearls despite being held on suspicion of vagrancy, Vera Woods grinned.

Her eyes darted sideways as if flirting with police photographer, George Howard, who took most of the images and was responsible for their unusual look. Many did bat their eyes at Howard.

He was said to be handsome, and he shunned the anonymous, surly and conventional police mugshot, preferring candid shots of suspects as they wanted to be seen.

Olga Anderson, a honey pot scammer who went by the name the Marchioness de Falaise and claimed to be related to Gloria Swanson, is captured on camera in 1929 as if she'd just left the opera.

A flasher called Samuel Guy, suspected of wilful and indecent exposure, is caught with his pants up (not down as was his wont).

"For the flasher, baggy pants on suspenders, which you can drop quickly, are the tools of the trade," said Nerida Campbell, the curator of a new exhibition showcasing 130 of the 2500 candid mugshots by Howard opening on Saturday.

"Drop your pants, show what you've got, TODAA! Pull your pants up and run, " she said of Mr Guy's modus operandi.

Some suspects grin as if they were on the town for a big night. Many of the young women strike poses straight from the booming cinema business of the 1920s, with dewy eyes looking up to the stars.

Ms Campbell said the '20s was a time of massive upheaval, when "fast times bred new crimes" and criminals moved into new markets, selling cocaine and stealing cars.

Unlike most mugshots, the suspects use a bentwood chair and their hats and clothes as props, as if they knew that one day they would inspire the costumes of British drama series Peaky Blinders.

The images represent a fraction of the 130,000 glass plate negatives held in Sydney Living Museum's NSW Police Forensic Photography.

Together they've inspired artists, academics and designers, but the specials were used as sources by Ralph Lauren and Karl Lagerfeld, and the costume designers of Peaky Blinders.

The new exhibition is the latest by Sydney Living Museum using the police images, including the City of Shadows, the most popular exhibition ever held at the Museum of Sydney.

The director of SLM, Mark Goggin, said the popularity and funds raised from these successful exhibitions would be used to redevelop the Justice and Police Museum, which holds the archives.

"It is part of a longer-term strategy for us to redevelop the whole of the Justice and Police Museum," he said on Wednesday.

SLM was looking at a "whole of site reworking" so the Police Museum could handle larger exhibitions, more visitors and conduct more research.

Mr Goggin said the popularity of these exhibitions had proven there was a demand and an audience for this material.

The archive, held by the Justice and Police Museum, was originally created by the NSW Police Department and the NSW Department of Prisons between 1912 and 1964 and may be the biggest police photography collection of its type in the southern hemisphere.

In the book that accompanies the exhibition, art critic Alastair Sooke writes that the specials were only mugshots in name, flouting the rules that they should be "deliberately bland, blank, deadpan, affectless, uninterested".

Before and after these images, mugshots stressed the dispassionate rule of law, but these portraits are full of character and lacked the usual indicators - such as handcuffs, police serial numbers and codes - that showed they were in custody or under suspicion.

The exhibition includes 130 images and their stories, sometimes revealing new networks.

It includes one of only a few surviving photographs of John Daniel "Snowy" Cutmore, a Melbourne based crook, who was sick in bed with the flu when he was shot by Squizzy Taylor in July 1922. Cutmore shot back, injuring Taylor, who died a bit later in hospital.

When going through newspaper archives, Ms Campbell couldn't work out why Cutmore's death had been highlighted in Cessnock's newspaper.

She discovered later that Cutmore and Taylor - like many criminals of the era - followed the races around NSW and Victoria, and often told police they were horse trainers.

This story Flashers and scammers: Mugshots show different side of Sydney's lowlife first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.