Catherine Flynn was sentenced to 6 months at Newcastle City Gaol for the conviction of the crime – stealing money from person. Age (on discharge): 34; Height: 5.1; Hair: Brown; Eyes: Blue; Place of Birth: Ireland; Status: Married.
Courtesy of the Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, there’s an absolutely beautiful set of portraits of criminals from the early 1870s in Newcastle, England.
This incongruous bunch is made up of men and women; young and old. Most have been sentenced to short-terms for theft of items (in most cases) necessary for survival – including boots, trivets, chickens, tobacco, oats, beef, or, in one case, four rabbits.
The portraits, which date from 1871-1873 are posed with much intention. Usually, the sitter rest a forearm on the chair back and sits with clasped hands. Sometimes they grip the lapels of their coat. All eerily poised.
John Richards was convicted of the crime – stealing money from person and was sentenced to 3 months at Newcastle City Gaol. Age (on discharge): 25; Height: 5.5½; Hair: Brown; Eyes: Blue; Place of Birth: Plymouth; Status: Single; Occupation: Hatter
This set of portraits remind me a lot of the well-circulated and well-loved portraits of criminals from the archives of the Police and Justice Museum, Sydney Australia. When I posted about them in January, 2011, I pointed out the obvious fact that they went beyond the sole purpose of identification one expects of police photography; Portraits, Not Mugshots.
When Alec Soth reflected on their quality and his constant search for excellence, he remarked, “I once again wonder why I bother with photography. It seems unfair that an anonymous police photographer can be as good as Avedon and Arbus.” Alien, and teasingly inaccessible, these portraits from Newcastle hold a similar power over the viewer.
In occurs to me, antique photographs allow us to distantly gawp toward ‘the other‘ – and precisely because they are ‘the other’. We can do this with more-or-less impunity and without the ethical problems of objectifying those in the photographs. I presume this is because the people are dead and the era is gone? There’s next-to-no political fallout for lazy interpretation of this century-old ‘other’?
Compare this to the politically fraught task and responsibility of gazing over photographs of other cultures in contemporary society. ‘The other’ is reinforced and made safe by the passing of time. However, ‘the other’ separated not by time, but only by space in our world today is very problematic.
Just something to think about, but not to taint your enjoyment of this dusty, eye-feast of portraiture.
Jane Farrell stole 2 boots and was sentenced to do 10 hard days labour. Age (on discharge): 12; Height: 4.2; Hair: Brown; Eyes: Blue; Place of Birth: Newcastle; Married or single: Single.
Also know as James Darley, at the age of just 16, this young man had been in and out of prison, but on this occasion he was sentenced for 2 months for stealing some shirts. Age:16; Height: 5.0; Hair: Brown; Eyes: Hazel; Place of Birth: Shotley Bridge; Work: Labourer.
Elsewhere on Prison Photography:
Thanks to Aaron Guy, curator for the photography collection of The North of England Mining Institute, for the link. Here’s Aaron sharing some of his discoveries ,  in the archives on his personal blog, and here’s his @AaronGuyUK Twitter account.