Channelling the police photographer

Captured on glass Part 1

People standing around camera setup outdoors.

Ellie explaining how to set the lens and make an exposure using the view camera to workshop participants. Photo Holly Schulte © Sydney Living Museums

As part of a workshop with Ellie Young at Gold Street Studios in Trentham, Victoria, I had the opportunity to take my own photographs using dry glass plate negatives. During the workshop I used modern view cameras to expose the dry plates that I’d hand coated and later processed.

Channelling the police photographer, I set up my modern large-format view camera out in the sun-drenched garden. The shaded verandah was the perfect spot to re-create my own version of a Special photograph. The long lens focal length meant the subject needed to be a distance away to appear in focus. I adjusted the front and rear panels to manually focus the image on the back of the camera ground glass and then, using a digital light meter, took a reading to determine the required shutter speed and aperture for a correct exposure. After I’d inserted the plate holder into the camera, Ellie kindly clicked the shutter to create a latent image on my handmade plate. The plate was ready to be processed.

Because of the low light sensitively of the emulsion, both of the photographs I took required slow exposures of between one to two seconds. I was unable to remain still enough over the time the shutter was open to achieve a sharp image on the negative. This issue of focus/ sharpness was further complicated as when the plate holder is inserted into the view camera the photographer can no longer check image focus point and position of the the sitter within the frame - this view is blocked by the plate holder.

View of camera set up in garden.
The view camera set-up in the garden at Gold Street Studios. Photo Holly Schulte © Sydney Living Museums
Using large format camera to photograph view camera.
Looking toward the lens of the view camera set-up in the garden. Photo Holly Schulte © Sydney Living Museums
Using large format camera to photograph view camera.
View of the chair in the image focused on the camera’s ground glass. Photo Holly Schulte © Sydney Living Museums
Chair with glass plate holder.
The plate holder on the chair featured in the photograph. The plate holder keeps the plate light tight until it it loaded into the rear of the camera for exposure. Photo Holly Schulte © Sydney Living Museums

My experience with the view camera – slow emulsion, uncontrollable available lighting, darkroom processes and moving subjects – all reflect the practice of the police photographer at work on the Specials in the 1920s. This era of photographic technology would have also necessitated exposures from less than a second to a few seconds. Much longer than the split second exposure taken on digital cameras of today.

The police photographer would have had to gain the suspect’s participation to take the right position and remain in the camera’s focus point, working quickly to execute his portraits before sunlight falling on the subject changed. Given the many challenges involved in capturing these images, including the unpredictability of the subjects, the technical and aesthetic quality of these New South Wales Police images is all the more remarkable.

Black and white photo of woman sitting on chair in garden.
Photograph in the style of the Specials, seated in positive. Photo Holly Schulte © Sydney Living Museums
Black and white photo of woman in garden.
Photograph in the style of the Specials, standing in positive. Photo Holly Schulte © Sydney Living Museums
Black and white negative of woman sitting on chair in garden.
Photograph in the style of the Specials, in negative. Photo Holly Schulte © Sydney Living Museums
Black and white negative of woman standing in garden.
Photograph in the style of the Specials, standing, in negative. Photo Holly Schulte © Sydney Living Museums

Find out more about our upcoming 1920s Mugshots Photography Workshop with Holly and photographer Enrico Scotece:

About the author

Portrait of woman against background of prickly pear foliage.

Holly Schulte

Curator Digital Assets

Holly is the Curator Digital Assets with Sydney Living Museums where she is part of the Collections & Access team.