They were images of outcasts captured in a moment of crisis – prostitutes, poisoners and gang members caught in the unsentimental flash of a police mug shot.
And it’s here – from where most might avert their gaze – that painter Sarah Ball finds her muse.
Now one of her uncompromising canvases, entitled gangmember, has seen her named Welsh Artist of the Year 2013.
Based on a mug shot taken at the time of the woman’s arrest in the 1920s, the work is the latest in a series where the artist has explored police archives in the US, Australia and Britain. Derived from a collection of photographs spanning the 1890s through to the 1970s, the sometimes disturbing and unsettling pieces include civil rights activists and others arrested merely for “looking suspicious”.
Sarah, 48, who works from a studio at her home near Usk, Monmouthshire, said gangmember, an oil standing just 18cm high, took shape when she was impressed by how the photograph captured the woman’s defiance.
She said: “The girl has a fascinating face and is blind in one eye. I thought she looked defiant in the photograph. There was something about her that made me want to paint her.
“The police archive photographs are different, they are not taken for sentimental reasons.
“They capture a brief moment of crisis in the sitter’s life and you get a hint of the times they lived in. Some look sad, others defiant. Some just look bewildered.”
Sarah, who lives with her husband Chris Morris and two children, said her work has been based on photography “for a while” and she has an interest in “found” material and collecting old photographs.
It’s only the second time she has entered the competition, which has been running for 13 years.
In 2010 her painting of a collector’s cabinet of curios, entitled Manmade Series, was highly commended.
Kathryn Campbell Dodd, an artist and gallery assistant at Oriel Myrddin, Carmarthen, was one of five members of the judging panel, which announced their winners today.
She said: “Sarah was for me a clear contender. The diminutive size of her skilfully made portraits bring a powerful intensity to her work and echo the photographs from which they were sourced.
“They have the slightly unsettling presence of subjects in a rogues’ gallery. They have a ghost-like quality which reminds us of the very function of a portrait, to capture a fleeting, living moment and hold it still for our gaze forever.
“Peering in to the fine details, as you must to appreciate these pieces, you are drawn in to imagine the circumstances and stories that might lie behind the image.”
John Abell, a 26-year-old former homeless man from Cardiff, was named runner-up with his 1.5m wide woodcut print entry Three Graces: All the Floods Left Them.
This is based on the classical Greek theme of The Three Graces, the goddesses representing beauty, joy and elegance. Abell sets his classical theme in a modern urban environment.
The artist, who works from a spare bedroom at his house in Grangetown, Cardiff, trawled the streets of the Welsh capital raiding skips for discarded pieces of wood, which he carved to make his dramatic prints.
Abell was expelled from Bishop of Llandaff School at 14 and spent the next couple of years living in homeless hostels before being accepted into Camberwell Art College in London to train as a painter.
Other winners included acclaimed Eisteddfod Gold Medal winning painter Iwan Bala, who was awarded the Drawing Prize for his work Anthem.
This depicts the words of the Welsh national anthem Hen Wlad fy Nhadau.
It tries to capture the spontaneity of writing poetry by presenting the lyrics in the way they might look on the pages of a poet’s notebook.
The winning entries will form the centre piece of the Welsh Artist of the Year Exhibition 2013, which runs at St David’s Hall, Cardiff, until Monday, August 6.
The exhibition features the work of all the prize winners plus more than 84 other pieces to make the shortlist.
Other winners in the Welsh Artist of the Year prize:
The Sculpture Prize was split between two very different Swansea artists – Sean Olsen and Jonathan Anderson.
Olsen’s mechanical Paint-Bot V.2 was described as having ‘the dormant quality of a ‘sorcerer’s apprentice that might be snapped into life at any moment’.
Anderson’s black fibreglass, resin and wood sculpture Dark Anomaly was a departure from his more usual medium of coal-dust.
Rhymney Valley-born photographer David Barnes won the Photography Prize for Swan. Part of his ongoing King Tide project this has documented the lives of communities around south Wales over the last eight years.
Ceramicist Morgen Hall won the Applied Arts Prize for her entry of three soda-fired dish and plate tapas sets whose unique embossed patterns were derived from heritage vegetable the Black Valentine Dwarf French bean.
Patricia Ziad, of Penarth, was awarded the Student Prize for her photograph of a corner of a chapel, which judges said brought a timeless poignancy to a traditional subject.