Like their American counterparts, British "gangsters" -- that is to say, members of organized crime -- have always contained an element of the glamorous and seductive about them. Something about the combination of secret-society, sharp dressing, and flouting both society's laws and morals has made them intriguing (if not appealing) components of popular culture. This has been especially true since the mid-'90s, as a rather large cottage industry of gangster-chic films, novels, and memoirs has been produced and eagerly consumed, with Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels obviously standing out as the exemplar.
Here, longtime fashion photographer Hogg presents an insider's portrait of real English (and Welsh) gangsters in this gorgeous coffee-table book. The project started when he met self-promoting gonzo gangster celebrity Dave Courtney (author of the memoirs Stop the Ride, Raving Lunacy, The Ride's Back On, host of the Gangland UK and Dave Courtney's Dodgy DVDs, etc.) at a fashion event, and so managed to make his way into the contemporary inner circle of "The Firm." As far one can tell from this book, "The Firm" is a loosely-knit alliance of interests, that is to say, everyone knows each other and talks to each other, but there's no overarching boss or hierarchy. Hogg took a few photos, showed them around, the gangsters liked them, and for about two years he was a mostly tolerated outsider. Although in one interview Hogg admitted, "Not everybody wanted to be photographed, and seeing me around with a camera was enough to start a quarrel" the general feeling was that "After a while everybody knew about me, but many times they weren't even aware of my discreet presence. That's how I gave my images such a intimate feeling."
Intimate is the right word for it, as Hogg's photos leap right into the dark corners with a mix of portraiture and photojournalism. From quiet closeups of old-time gangster legends (generally Kray associates) smoking in East End bars, to raunchy Mayfair party antics, to the ritual of high-profile funerals, this book covers the gamut. Hogg's fashion background shines through, as the portraits are clearly the finest work in the book, capturing every crease and scar on a face, dead eyes cloaked in shadow, half-smiles, and outsize posturing. From a photographic perspective these are great works, albeit ones that reinforce the gangster mystique and certainly celebrate them. The funeral bits are much more banal, the kind of stuff any competent newspaper staff photographer might walk away with. The candid scenes are probably the most disturbing and perhaps most revealing: one subject playfully holding two guns at his girlfriend's head as she squirms away with her child sitting in the background, Courtney's groping of models at parties, Welsh gangsters menacing a cowering deadbeat with a steering wheel club. In all, the book has about 140 beautifully reproduced black and white photos that take one into a seedy world.
Sprinkled throughout the book are a few essays by the subjects, including a cheezy and self-justifying forward by Bruce Reynolds (mastermind of the legendary 1964 Great Train Robbery and author of the memoir Crossing the Line). Indeed, self-justification is the order of the day in the essays, from Dave Courtney's rambling "I'm a naughty boy" apologia to bare-knuckle fighter Mickey Goldtooth's woe-is-meism. The most interesting story is that of Welshman Bernie Davies. He also seeks to explain why he's a gangster, but his story is much more interesting, as it stems from the shutdown of the mines and Thatcherism. Indeed, the photos of Welsh gangsters bear little relation to those of the dapper old-time East Enders or the flash lads hanging out in Tenerife. All in all, this is an excellent work that should appeal to those in the market for interesting photography collections as well as those interested in a literal behind-the-scenes look at the modern British gangster.