JTF (just the facts): Co-published by Here Press (here) and Images Vevey in September 2018. Hardcover, 380 pages, with 152 color photographs, with 2 gatefolds and 3 tipped in fold-outs. Includes texts, transcribed by the artist. In an edition of 1500 copies. Design by Jono Rotman and Ben Weaver Studio. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: Photographer Jono Rotman is a fourth generation white New Zealander, who today splits his time between his native New Zealand and the United States. His work looks at the consequences of colonialism, and the collision of civilization and the natural world. In his earlier series Lockups, Rotman photographed the interior of prisons and psychiatric hospitals, revealing the controlled and regulated architecture of these institutions of power. His interest in power and its representation in society led him to his next project – an intimate look at the members of New Zealand’s largest gang called Mongrel Mob.
Mongrel Mob was founded in the early 1960s by European youths, and over the years, it has expanded to thirty chapters around the country. The majority of today’s Mongrel Mob members are indigenous Maori. Originally Rotman intended to photograph various gangs around the country, but quickly directed all his attention to Mongrel Mob. Like most gangs, Mongrel Mob has a stringent code against outsiders, and Rotman spent the past decade meeting with gang members on their terms and slowly gaining their trust and respect. Transparency about the project was an essential part of the process and Rotman involved the gang members in discussions about the editing and ultimate use of the work.
Rotman traveled all around New Zealand for this project, and the photographs were taken on location, in homes and clubs. All of the portraits were shot with a large-format camera, against a dark background with available light, and without any styling or direction from the photographer – this way each sitter had control over his representation. It was critical for Rotman to avoid any seemingly subjective vantage point, as he wanted to “transmit their spirit while still letting them retain their mystery and privacy”. The work is not about the celebration or justification of the negative legacy of the gang (which is notorious for extreme violence, including drug trafficking, robbery, and murder); Rotman is instead interested in these men as unique individuals, who have emerged from and been shaped by their environment and culture.
The members of the Mongrel Mob wear predominantly red and black colors and extensive tattoos cover their faces and bodies. Many of the leather jackets, vests, and other clothing worn by members include the gang’s emblem – a snarling British bulldog wearing a Nazi helmet – and swastikas. The use of these symbols is a provocative response to the Maori’s charged colonial past, and also a clear effort to frighten and offend mainstream society.
Rotman’s project won the Images Vevey Book Award, and was published as a photobook titled Mongrelism. The publication is described as a handbook for the gang community. Rotman sequenced the images in consultation with the members of the Mongrel Mob, mindfully considering genealogical connections, geographic locations, and hierarchical structures. In addition to portraits, there are images of gang paraphernalia (a vintage musket, a red helmet, a black Cadillac, and other archival photographs) and landscapes of New Zealand. The second part of the book includes texts, and a series of conversations between Rotman and various members.
The book has a red cover, and the impression on the front cover is adaptation of a self-portrait whakairo carved by Little Man Rogue. As we open the book, the first element we discover is a map – printed on a thinner paper, it unfolds vertically, locating gang chapters around the country. The first portrait depicts a man confidently looking straight into the camera, and we are immediately drawn to his heavily tattooed face. He wears a helmet and has bandana around his neck. His jacket, predominantly in red, black and white colors, reads “South Island” and has the emblems of Mongrel Mob, as well as various pins, some with a swastika. We learn from the caption that his is Greco Notorious and he is from South Island. Like many other men documented in the book, Greco Notorious has since passed away, yet his and other voices remain present through this visual study.
A man named Pigdog Notorious is photographed from the back, revealing a tattoo of a bulldog face covering his bald head. Sean Wellington also stands with his back to the camera, holding two of his young sons. All of the sitters have similar outfits covered with emblems and symbols, and there is a strong sense of identity and belonging. These portraits are striking, calm, confident, and uncomfortable. As we look at these portraits, we also notice that there are no direct signs of violence. Rotman was given access to the gang’s inner community, but guided by their protocol, his portraits don’t offer any other context or additional details of the Mongrel Mob world.
As a photobook, Mongrelism has a simple clean design, aimed at keeping our full attention on its content. The images are printed on a glossy white paper, making them stand out, while the text pages are printed on a thinner lighter paper. The text pages have multiple redactions in red. Mongrelism embodies Rotman’s artistic vision and sensibility, and also serves as historical documentation and a visual mythology of the community.
Rotman’s focus on a marginalised community and his inclusive approach to artmaking recall a recent project by the British artist Patrick Waterhouse, who worked closely with Warlpiri community of Australia while making their portraits (reviewed here). In an impactful approach to equal participation, Rotman gives his sitters intellectual property rights over their images, consults with them over distribution, shares the proceeds of sales, etc. Both bodies of work allude to broader renegotiation process that is taking place in contemporary photography, where the conversation about representation has become more respectful and two-sided.
Collector’s POV: Jono Rotman is represented by Gow Langsford Gallery in Auckland (here). His work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.