Jim Mortram is an honorable man. Don’t read that in the “Brutus is an honorable man” sense. I mean it in every good way; his work has integrity, and if giving voice to the voiceless doesn’t sound like reinventing the wheel, ask yourself, what about that wheel was so faulty in the first place? In fact I make this observation of Mortram’s honor after the BBC covered his Small Town Intertia project several months ago in its News in Pictures column. The treatment was serious and respectful. Mortram’s project has merit, was the takeaway. It’s vital and honest and worthy of our attention. True on all counts, I thought, and gratifying that the project should get exposure to a wider audience. The mistake I made was reading the comment thread at the end of the article.
How we revel in our skepticism, our conviction that we see through some scheme and won’t be among those fooled. Of course, it is a beneficial posture at times. The failing is the inability or unwillingness to temper that initial gut reaction with a bit of research. Among the comments in response to the BBC story were a number observing that Mortram was exploiting his subjects in some nebulous way, or that the project is solely about photography. I won’t quote these sentiments in full. They’re not worthy of the work they purport to critique, and they’re based on a willfully selective reading of Mortram’s aims.
Now, whether or not Jim Mortram is honorable has no bearing on the quality of his photographic output. He might be churlish or calculating and still produce striking, beautifully framed images. But in this case, the facts beyond the pictures themselves should be taken into account. Jim Mortram invests great time and spirit in chronicling the lives of the people in this project. He doesn’t pop in for a single session, snap off a few shots and choose the best of the lot. These are ongoing relationships, and Mortram not only renders them visually, but narratively as well. Thus far, he has leveraged these relationships into a small-scale print sale, in which he offered high quality prints of work – images from outside the Market Town/Small Town Inertia series – at very low prices. The sale was put on in the service of replacing a broken camera. The sheer greed.
Now he has gone a step further and chosen images from the series for a his first book, Electric Tears and All Their Portent, from Café Royal Books*. Funny thing about that: the book was available in a limited edition of 150 copies, and those copies cost 5 pounds apiece. He took his 25 copies, signed them, sold them and gave the 300 pounds in proceeds to MIND, a mental health charity. If Mortram is exploiting his subjects, he’s not very good at it. What’s more, this project focuses on a poet and artist who works under the name Tilney1, and the finished work, though it rests most heavily on Mortram’s photos, also includes several pieces of collage and illustration work by Tilney1. “His canvasses instantly reminded me of the American painter Basquiat,” Mortram writes, “Coded, abstract narratives, words and the branding of memories.” Yes, Tilney1 must surely be outraged by this sort of attention, and by the riches Mortram is piling up.
The book itself is the result of an ongoing relationship between Mortram and Tilney1, who suffers from Schizotypal and Obsessive Compulsive disorders as a result of traumatic experiences. These disorders have triggered memory loops, which prevent him from functioning at the level he would like to and, to judge by his work, the level he is capable of in his clearer moments. The cover shot is a candid portrait of Tilney1, taking a drag from a cigarette and looking somewhere out of frame. Mortram lets his image fill the frame, reducing the background to a light-colored section of wall behind shoulders and head and a layer of shadow lower in the shot. There’s no sign of discomfort with the camera in Tilney1’s posture, no sense that he’s puffed up or posing. If anything, he looks thoughtful. The next image, a drawing of his concerned with a “nothingness bubble”, reinforces that impression. It’s fragmented and tantalizing, so much so that even if the viewer can’t instantly make the visual and verbal elements connect, there remains a sense that something here is worth exploring. None of Mortam’s photos here present his subject as inept or pitiable, nor are they a plea for understanding. This is something other, an assertion of dignity, a statement that this man and his work are worth noticing and understanding.
Another image, in which Tilney1 stands before a window, its curtains flooded with light and bows his head, is overlaid with his words: “After years of living in bed nearly 24” in large, block letters, and a series of rings, filled with his handwriting. It’s a genuine collaboration between the two men, and it appears to refer to the ten lost years during which Tilney1 was incorrectly medicated,overmedicated and sectioned.
Mortram shows himself once again to be a great observer. The word is overused, but his eye is sharp and his instincts are, as ever, unfailingly sound. He doesn’t attempt to stuff this small book with as many images as possible. The photos chosen span two pages apiece, edge to edge. In this they honor their subject and give his life and efforts a scale he’s perhaps unaccustomed to being afforded. Electric Tears and All Their Portent is a long overdue document for Mortram – I suspect he could have chased down a book offer far sooner, and on far more lucrative terms – and perhaps even moreso for Tilney1. And that, more than anything else, justifies Jim Mortram’s ongoing work.
– John McIntyre