J A Mortram

Small Town Inertia : Notes on an exhibition

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Last Thursday a solo exhibition comprising a selection of images from the body of stories that encompass ‘Small Town Inertia‘ opened in Norwich at the AITU Gallery. The journey from the first email suggesting the work be shared in the form of a show to the Private View was wrought with ups and downs, highs and lows, a starting off point and a destination, like all great journeys should have.

When Luke Emery of AITU initially contacted me I was quite reticent about sharing the work. Financially it was going to be a problem, logistically difficult but a desire was there on my part and Luke’s tenacity with my reservations and concerns won out and I agreed.

Not only would it be right I felt to share the work within the county all of the images and stories heralded it’s always been a belief that images have a natural home in print and book form. These physical formats are how I’ve always best related to photography. My earliest experiences of photography being that of watching my father hand print in the kitchen or my pawing through photography and cinematography books at the local library.

Most all of my interaction with images in current times has been via the digital world and a highly positive, sharing experience it is. Images are readily, immediately available at our own request. The Internet being a perfect portal to every image, photographer and story one might wish to seek out or luckily stumble across. A true network, it’s the scale of sharing that I find most positive about the online experience. For all the despair and reports concerning the failings of the Internet I’ve always believed in essence it’s the closest we have ever come to a collective consciousness, at least it has the framework in place to permit such fabled a state.

The online experience facilitates communication, learning, sharing and discovering photography that otherwise would be amazingly difficult to witness. It’s quite something to wake up in a morning and receive a mail from a friend in America or Amsterdam or anywhere in the world suggesting a story that I must read or an image that I have to see. It’s an opportunity that constantly stuns me and is never taken foregranted.

Yet, there’s nothing quite like making a print. Holding a print, hanging a print and amassing a series of work and hanging it upon something as simple as a wall. The connection made between print and viewers, the space intimate, touching distance from a print, bringing the viewer closer to the reality of the stories. All these thoughts helped me decide to share work form ‘Small Town Inertia’ in the physical world however distant the opportunity to actually make the prints was at that first yes.

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The weeks after agreeing to the show the reality began to sink in that no way would I be able to use a Pro studio to get the work made. I’ve in the past used Metro Imaging for high quality prints and quite simply they are the best. However in the time I had to prepare the show no way could I fund an entire exhibition. This left me in the uncharted waters of digital self printing. I’d no printer and never used one.

To my rescue came my dear friend Justin Leighton who offered to mail me a printer of his. Quite simply, without Justin’s help the show would have died a premature death at this junction so my debt is vast, not merely in the material realm in relation to the offer of this amazing tool but also for his mentorship and friendship. Support such as that so freely shared by Justin and countless other friends within the online photographic community have been a real life raft for me. It’s both an honor and I’m under no illusions that without this incredible network of friends and peers I’d not be making images or sharing these stories at all.

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As soon as the printer arrived the first issue was fitting it within our little bus! Thankfully a way was devised and next on the list was paper. Paper for printing seemed like a dark art. I’d studiously been pawing through forums, reading reviews trying through what felt at times like a vertical learning curve to get a grasp of what was good, bad and to be avoided at all costs. Never having digitally printed before I felt utterly lost.

Through the process of researching I discovered that the UK office of what I’d discovered to be the highest respected paper manufacturer in the world Hahnemühle was quite amazingly some seven miles from home. Sometimes you just catch a break. I called them up with a notion that maybe they could support the project and coming show. I’ve written to countless manufacturers and companies in the past seeking sponsorship to little success, most often the answer has been companies never support individuals, organizations yes, individuals no. Disappointing but that’s the way things are and I’d no real hope that my dealing with Hahnemühle would be any different. How wrong I was. The support and interest I’ve had has been incredible. After a few phone conversations and e-mails with the ever friendly and helpful Heidi and Kristie then a short trip out to the offices I found myself in the position of not only having a printer to make the prints but also enough paper to print upon. Amazed and amazing.

45155472-621593_462547913784898_273683456_oPrinting on the bus with a Canon 9500 and Hahnemühle FineArt Baryta.

I’d read countless horror stories about the ‘printing experience’. Tales of woe and worry, confusion, failed prints, bad tones. Enough to give anyone nightmares. In reality there was only one course of action, take the plunge. I downloaded the correct ICC profiles to match the printer, used the recommended and most obvious settings and pressed print. Tick tock. Waiting for a print to be birthed is quite something. I cut the image I am sure of an expectant father from a 50’s flick, pacing, smoking, pacing… the first shot came out perfect.

With confidence restored I printed the entire show, some thirty seven prints in a single day. Zero mistakes, zero problems and I was astounded at the results. I loved having control over this final stage of the process and the paper was exceptional. I was given a huge choice of what to use, ultimately deciding upon FineArt Baryta 325 gsm and I’m relieved I did. Blacks were amazing, tones amazing. Everything had come together, everything worked far better than I could have expected. The show was going to happen. For the preceding weeks pretty much everyday I was sure I was going to have to cancel the exhibition. I’d turned down many offers of showing work this year and having said yes to AITU I really did not want to let them down. That night after I laid all the prints out to dry and finally saw the work it was all I could do to reflect upon the support, guidance and help to physically get the show ready and also upon the stories and people within every image.

It was a real, moving experience, so indebted for the support, so indebted to have the chance to make the stories so proud of all the people within the images for being so giving, so brave that they share their lives with the world. It was a fantastic moment for me and for that I’m more than thankful.

Asides from printing one of the most formidable expenses in putting a show together is the cost of presentation. Frame or no frame. Framing is really expensive. Even with cheap, low quality frames I was facing a cost of well over two hundred pounds, putting this in perspective of my working as a Carer at home that’s two and a half weeks money so the books just would not balance, not if we wanted to eat so I had to find an alternative solution.

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Luckily I’d just watched an amazing documentary ‘The Silver Footprint‘ about the master printer Robin Bell. Within the documentary was footage of an exhibition of Robin’s prints and to my surprise the show was hung using bulldog clips. I had my solution to the hanging situation and the clips were easy to find upon an online auction site, a fraction of a fraction of the cost of framing and they worked perfectly.

45155510-JAM_5172Bulldog clips as an alternative to frames.

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45194135-1‘Red Neck Land’ Tilney1’s fanzine.

One element of AITU shows is their ‘Free giveaway’ to which I was left to decide what would make a good gift for the first 20 people through the door on the night of the Private View. I thought this would make a great opportunity to share some of the work of one of the people I have photographed and documented this last 2 years, the artist Tilney1. The nature of the whole of ‘Small Town Inertia’ is rooted in community so it felt more than fitting that I use the opportunity to incorporate some of the work from within one of the stories and lives. I also respect Tilney1’s work greatly so it was a real pleasure to make up a zine of his very personal, brave and creative work to share.

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45194172-JAM_5027_WebTilney1 seeing the fanzine containing his artwork and poetry for the first time.

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Private View night. Terrified before people arrive. Portrait thanks to my ever supportive and amazing partner Laura.

The Private View night came and was a real joy. I was lucky to share it with my partner Laura and my Father. Meeting up with many familiar faces from online was a true pleasure and even the brilliant folk from Hahnemühle attended – how’s that for support!.

It’s great to have this stage of the show hung and open to the public, I hope any viewers take something positive away from the experience of seeing the prints and having a introduction into the important element of all of this, that being the stories and the lives they stem from.

What’s next? Next, life as normal, Carer duties as ever and shooting, interviewing and documenting as much as I can. I’m planning upon adding as much work as possible to the show knowing in the coming 6 months it will be packed off and head to the fine cities of Sheffield and Brighton.

The entire experience of making and sharing this exhibition has been thrilling. Along the way I’ve met and made new friends, learned a hell of a lot and fast, been witness to some amazing support and now it’s back to the most important thing of all – shooting and sharing stories from Market Town for ‘Small Town Inertia’.

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45172823-Untitled-1The final selection. 

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Statement from the show :

This exhibition is a comprised of a selection of images from several stories taken from the long form documentary series ‘Small Town Inertia’. I’ve followed the lives of several people within a 3 mile radius of the Market Town that I live in Dereham, East Anglia for the past 3 years.

The trust and access those participating bestowed upon me is the reason you see these pictures upon these walls. Without their participation you’d be looking at bare paper.

Over the course of working on these stories many situations have arisen and been documented, isolation, poverty, drug abuse, homelessness, self harm, mental illness, juvenile crime, epilepsy though for myself the over riding experience has been one of endurance in spite of the impossible walls life often presents to us. Wall’s that box us in, wall’s that separate us, wall’s to climb to be set free.

This selection of images is a brief look within these documented lives. Lives lived in the U.K. Lives lived in the now. Lives lived within times of much change. As the cultural, political and economic landscape changes these stories depict the final destination for the results of many of those high up and far away decisions and influences. These images depict the full stop of the Welfare State cuts, Housing Benefit cuts, Health cuts, loopholes and failures of systems and what happens when the heart of a community is slowly eroded.

These images also depict the lives of those hanging on, bowed yet not broken, of lives where a fight to survive is very real. Fighting apathy, addiction, fighting loneliness, illness all the while clinging to self respect, adrift in the community, in life, but not yet lost.

Your community is exactly that, yours. Everyone has their story. I hope you’ll make time to visit the ‘Small Town Inertia’ site and read the interviews and testimony of the people that have given so much to appear in these images, their stories are all that count.

My great and continual debt is to all those pictured and involved within ‘Small Town Inertia’, I owe you everything.

My great and continual thanks to everyone that has supported this ongoing project, without you it quite simply would not exist.

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My great and continual thanks to Hahnemühle and especially the fantastic team at Hahnemühle UK for without your support, again this show could not have taken place.

J.A Mortram October 2012

This series of images is printed upon A3 FineArt Baryta 325 gsm · 100% α-Cellulose · bright white · high-gloss paper.

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Small Town Inertia : Notes on an exhibition