Pre-Exhibition and introduction
This was my second study visit to the Bank Street Arts centre, and was no easier to find this time around! The subject of this visit was an exhibition of prints by Jim Mortram “Small town inertia” which was curated by OCA tutor Andrew Conroy so we had both the benefit of a tutors experience with the background of putting this work on show. We began the visit with a coffee and a discussion, the usual pointers of what we should be looking at, some background on Andrew’s involvement and an overview of Jim and his work. Having already seen Jim’s work in the BJP and on the BBC webpage, I was looking forwards to seeing this in reality. Part of the pre-reading for this visit was to look at Julie’s story by Darcy Padilla and to read comments on the We are OCA pages to fuel a debate on documentary photography. Thoughts on Padilla’s work were varied as expected and there was very much a feeling of exploitation, while a relationship was developed between the photographer and Julie, it seemed to be a case that it was more one sided than the other. We were bearing this in mind as we all then headed upstairs to view the gallery.
Refreshingly the prints were just mounted to the wall with white push pins, no framing or mounting and the simplicity of this certainly gave me hope that putting on an exhibition would be within reach at some point.
The plan was to look at the images and then to get together and discuss a few key prints that had been identified. All the images were monochrome, with the varied ranges of tone adding to the atmosphere with the subjects; it also added a feeling that you couldn’t always date the images. One image had an old silver cross style pram in it but when you looked further, you could see a shop advertising sim cards so putting it in more recent times. I certainly got the feeling from the subjects that they were comfortable with Jim being in their homes and taking photographs, and then later on this was explained further by our discussion with Jim where he explained his process of getting to know them, listening to their stories and then taking photographs when the time was right, not having a set agenda, if it didn’t happen there would be another day.
After we’d all looked around the images, we then discussed a number of images and how we felt about them. Some of us were struggling to feel anything about the series, there was a sense of detachment from the subjects within. I thought that in my case it was because I’d seen quite a few before in my pre visit study, but there was some discussion that it was more to do with the lack of captions (a considered curatorial choice) and information on the subjects. When reading the images, we were very much looking at the camera angles, the positioning of the subject, the surrounding location and possessions and making a view that was influenced by our own backgrounds. The choice behind no text or captions was very much designed to force us to make our minds up and to make the connection.
Video and Discussion
We then went downstairs to watch some videos of the subjects. The first one was images set to music, the other two were photographs mixed with an audio of the subject talking. At this point I think we all suddenly clicked, seeing images and being able to relate them to a voice speaking about an accident where they went blind, or losing their partner because they couldn’t get an ambulance to come really hit home and when the videos finished there was just stunned silence. That would have been more useful before we saw the images as now we really did have the emotional connection. The highlight of the visit had to be when we were all huddled around an ipad having a skype conversation with Jim, this wasn’t without interruption on both sides as we were moved out of the room we were in, and Jim had his enthusiastic dog wanting to join in but that’s very much in keeping with his photography- fitting it in around his commitment as a full time carer, and for us students who often have to juggle work and family commitments with our studies, snatching opportunities where we can. Listening to Jim wasn’t like listening to a photographer, it was like a conversation with a friend or a fellow student, his passion and enthusiasm came through and having that insight into his work and the processes was illuminating. We got from this conversation information that you would never get as a part of a photography exhibition. Jim gets to know the subjects and builds a relationship with them, not planning the images but just taking them when he feels its right to, some days it’s just conversation and a chance for both him and the subject to have some contact with the outside world. Whereas some photographers have their subject and once they’ve got the image that’s it done, Jim keeps in touch with them. While we wondered whether some of the subjects had seen their images, especially with a debate over the less flattering of images, we discovered that no-one had ever complained. I admit I took pages of notes, not all of them are here, and some are just in my art journal as I don’t think I can do justice to the day.
While Jim was passionate about his photography, what really came across was his enthusiasm and dedication to listen to peoples stories, to document his local community and to provide a positive voice to people who aren’t being heard. This isn’t a short term project, this is a lifetime of work, a collaboration of trust and community, taking and giving back. To hear and see these people brings them to life, I might never visit their town but I can know who they are through this work and it does provoke a desire to do the same in my local area. As Jim said “these are the stories that need to be seen”
– Seeing images presented in a non framed way- much more immediate
– Catching up with other students