It’s often best to sit with a book you’re excited about before commenting on it. Enthusiasm has a place, but a hurried response runs the risk of missing nuances of the work in question. With something like JA Mortram’s Small Town Inertia: Diary Entries, a pause is in order to let the images do their work.
Mortram has made exemplary use of digital means in extending his work’s reach beyond the UK. He has also forged relationships with photographers around the world, both in the name of supportive give-and-take and discussion of technical and ethical matters. None of that diminishes the impact of or need for this book, which is a worthy addition to the photography line from Cafe Royal Books. At a time when digital images are available instantly most everywhere, these slim, softcover volumes still bring a thrill. They have a samizdat feel, a natural urgency that leaves me torn between clinging to my lone copy and pressing it on someone near to me.
The fact that several familiar images are part of this project is initially a mild surprise. That familiarity doesn’t diminish their power, however. In fact, their inclusion alongside a series of unfamiliar photos re-contextualizes them as part of Mortram’s larger project. The scope of his vision is on display here, in images that range from portrait to candid action shots. Fourteen of the sixteen photos run fully two pages in width, and the uses of that space are so naturally varied that the choice feels justified in each case. A portrait of a youngish man with his eyes closed and tears on his face is framed so tightly that the top of his head is cut out the shot. His ears are blurred, the focus is so shallow. It’s such an appropriate presentation that the viewer may not fully appreciate the daring involved. Other, domestic scenes are cluttered and busy, so that each viewing reveals the root or aftermath of another small drama.
The compositions here are matter-of-fact. I note this because Mortram isn’t the type of photographer who resorts to sensationalism. In a piece for the BBC, he notes that, “My job is to to be quiet, to listen and to see, without adding visual parlour tricks or giving a hard-sell to an audience potentially saturated by digitally enhanced emotions. I intend the images to be as honest as the people sharing their stories.”
Indeed there’s an intimacy here, albeit one more fully evident online, where he pairs these photos with the stories of the people in them. One of the most powerful of these stories is that of David, a man who lost his sight in adulthood. He lived with his mother, Eugene, whose health was deteriorating and who eventually passed away. Mortram dedicates Diary Entries to her, and to Stuart, who is featured on the cover in one of the subtlest and most striking portraits in the entire Small Town Inertia project. His expression in looking at the camera is steady. He smokes coolly, leaning forward on one forearm. It’s hard to be sure of the room’s dimensions. Several ornamental hangings on the wall behind him appear close together, and there’s a general sense of that the furnishings are a bit crowded, but none of this is allowed to compete with his presence. His eyes are bright, and though Mortram has noted that Stuart was “alone and somewhat isolated from the world around him, Stuart has taught me one lesson above all: to love the small, precious moments with those close to you. It’s the one element of life that can never be regretted.” The dedication and his appearance on the cover feel like fitting tributes.
Mortram’s work with Cafe Royal Books continues to grow in breadth and complexity. His first book, Electric Tears and All Their Portent, focused on Tilney1, a young, self-described “despair poet” who has struggled with memory loops, auditory hallucinations and other delusions. The book featured some of Tilney1’s own art and writings, and in the months since, Cafe Royal has produced an entire book of them, Red Neck Land. As for Diary Entries, it ends with words from the poet George Szirtes. “Photography, speak to us of our plight,” Szirtes writes. Photography obliges.
– John McIntyre