[Police photography in New South Wales] was founded something like fifteen years ago, but it was not until ten years later that it began to make real strides of progress. Then handsome Sergeant George B. Howard, tall, athletic-looking and wearing pince-nez, took charge, and things began to move.

Truth (Sydney), 30 November 1924

Black and white portrait of young man in uniform.
Constable George B Howard, photographer unknown, c1910. Courtesy John Howard

George B Howard was a prominent police photographer in Sydney during the 1920s, when the use of photography was emerging strongly as an aid to identification and the investigation of crime. Sydney’s ‘Camera Cop’1 made a significant contribution to police photography, but we still know little about the man behind the lens.

Howard was born in Crookwell in the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales on 15 June 1889. On joining the New South Wales Police Department he was identified as a labourer, 5 feet 10.75 inches tall, with blue eyes, dark hair and a dark complexion. He graduated from the New South Wales Police Depot in 1910 and took up various posts in northern New South Wales.

On 4 June 1920, newspapers report that Howard was ‘rescued’ from his ‘sylvan’ post as the acting gaoler in Taree and promoted to the role of ‘official photographer for the fingerprint system’ in the Criminal Investigation Branch at Sydney’s police headquarters.2

Howard evidently had an interest in photography from a young age: the press reported that he had purchased his first camera as a teenager and that police utilised his photographic expertise prior to his arrival at Sydney’s Central Police Station.

Photography at this time was far from the point and shoot cameras and instant digital images of today. While photographic technology was becoming more automated, a police photographer in the 1920s needed the photographic skills to operate a large-format camera with manual focus and exposure settings. Knowledge of chemistry and darkroom processing was also required.

Howard was likely kept busy in the studio and darkroom and on the streets of Sydney, photographing everything from fingerprints, documents, handwriting samples and items of evidence to accident or crime scenes and suspects in police custody. His photographic work was reported to have ‘earned the commendation and applause of many a well-known judge’.3 Of his surviving work in the archive, the Specials negatives are the most celebrated. The photographs taken in the 1920s have a distinctive, arresting visual style that we believe may be attributable to Howard. During this time, too, more Specials photographs were taken, and by 1930 about 2500 suspect portraits had been created.

An achievement claimed by Sergt. Howard is a two posture print of a single negative, showing the reproduction of a criminal in double posture on the one card.

Crookwell Gazette, 22 August 1923

An innovative technical and visual development of the 1920s Specials photographs is capturing the suspect in two different exposures on a single negative. These double photographs typically depict a headshot and a full-length standing pose of the same sitter. While this execution is common practice after mid-1921, the image content was far from formulated or regular, showing that the camera was not pre-positioned or pre-set. The different perspectives of the holding yard at Central Police Station are evidence that the photographer crafted each image on the day, positioning his camera, focusing and deciding exposures according to available light. Clearly this was more than a policeman just obeying protocol – if a protocol then existed. The technical expertise evident in this photographer’s use of a large-format camera with manual settings, accurate exposures and clearly processed negatives, as well as the images’ variety and informality, is uncommon in police mugshots of this or any era.

In April 1921, Howard was promoted to sergeant and took charge of the photographic section. News articles from the time claim that his photographic unit was the largest of its kind in Australia, and perhaps the best organised and most up to date in the world, outside Scotland Yard. One article states that crooks regarded Howard as a ‘decided menace’ and praises him for instituting Sydney’s ‘Rogues Gallery’, the ‘library of bulky books in which the criminal activities of Australia’s citizens are recorded’.4 Evidently he was a diligent, intelligent and charming man with a talent for photography. Newspaper reports include admiring comments on his personal, professional and photographic abilities and describe him as tall and handsome.

However they regarded Howard, the subjects depicted in the Specials were active participants in the photographic exchange. In all but a few examples they appear relaxed and confident, and some even pose playfully for the camera. Given that the subjects are in police custody, often yet to learn what charges would be brought against them, this seems a remarkable feat and can be credited to Howard’s photographic skill and personal charm.

New research suggests that Howard was also involved with Sydney’s amateur photographic scene during the 1920s. Press reports note that Howard ‘has proved himself an artistic photographer of landscapes, portraits, and scenes which do not come into his routine work’.5 Although his ‘artistic’ photographs have not been found, we have located a photograph by Howard which depicts a cat leaping up through the arms of a young girl. Perhaps admired for the photographic skill in timing the shot and sharpness in capturing the nimble cat mid-air, the image was reproduced with the caption ‘OVER!’ in The Australasian Photo-Review and on the cover of The Daily Guardian in 1924.

Black and white photo with white border showing cat jumping out of girl's arms.

Howard’s photograph titled ‘OVER!’, reproduced in The Australasian Photo-Review, 15 November 1924, p573.

Howard left his position as police photographer in 1929. He worked in senior police roles across Sydney and later country New South Wales until his retirement in 1949. After Howard’s departure from the photography section, the quality and production of the Specials changed and they became more like typical mugshots of the time.

Although the 1920s Specials follow long-established framing conventions of mugshot photography, capturing the subject in a headshot and a full-length standing pose, their photographic beauty, clarity and individuality make it all too easy to forget their intended purpose as police mugshots. The portraits are a testament to Howard’s talents and unique approach to the medium required for successfully policing postwar Sydney. His photography conveys an almost effortless negotiation of underworld characters by documenting the distinct personalities of joy-riders, flappers, con men and killers, providing viewers today with a multilayered, unexpected and fascinating insight into the era.