Channelling the police photographer
Captured on glass Part 1
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.
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.