[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
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