Some years ago, I came across a photographer on Twitter. He was based in Dereham in Norfolk, not a million miles away from me. The images he was posting stood out. Stark black and white documentary photographs that echo a tradition that starts in the slums of Manhattan with Jacob Riis. This work however, is not historical, this is now. These are images from my country, from a town that less than 70 miles away.
Jim Mortram is not a professional photographer, he is self-taught and a carer to his mother. The camera became a tool for him to reconnect both with himself and those around. For over the seven years, he has been photographing people in his town, his friends and telling their stories. This work has been recently published via a highly successful Kickstarter campaign in the book Small Town Inertia.
As a backer of the Kickstarter I was familiar with Jim’s work and his approach. However, nothing quite prepared me for the resulting book.
The images switch between the various friends that he has photographed. Each image is accompanied by a small piece of text, normally in the subjects own words. As you progress through the book, the stories piece together to form a narrative on each of the people photographed.
Jim shoots medium format and 35mm black and white film, which are hand processed and printed by himself. The process of working in traditional black and white, builds in time for review and reflection on the work. Something that we can often loose when working with digital.
Mortram’s work functions on many levels. On social media platforms, he is vocal about politics and the policies that have resulted in changes to the welfare state provision. The book has essays which frame the context of the work. However, to view his work as just political is not in any way to do it justice. The student of photography and visual art will have much to gain on how to approach storytelling, and form a narrative from singular images.
To photograph family and friends is something that is rarely done with such accomplishment. The resulting images can often fall into sentimentality or veer towards the family album aesthetic. Mortram has instead produced images that are refined and considered. The photographs manage to combine being personal and empathetic and at the same time allow the subjects to have space within the frame to tell their story with dignity and as an equal.
The book is also a reminder that photography projects are all around us. To have something that is on your doorstep, that you can return to time and time again, allows for a photographer to refine their practice. To work and rework an idea allows for leaps in both technical and aesthetic skill development.
For an introduction to Jim discussing the book.
An early article discussing the project from The Guardian
BJP Interview from May 2017 with Jim Mortram
To follow Jim Mortram:
Image credit: Jim Mortram