“If you want to photograph the tribe, you’ve got to be part of the tribe.” Tish Murtha
A moving portrait of fiery, social documentary photographer Patricia Anne “Tish” Murtha (14 March 1956 – 13 March 2013), has been released in cinemas today. Docu-biopic Tish, directed by Paul Sng (Dispossession, Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché ) and beautifully narrated by actor Maxine Peake, paints a vivid and evocative portrait of Murtha’s life-long commitment to documenting the lives of working-class communities in the North East of England. The driving force behind the film was Murtha’s daughter Ella who talks to her mother’s relatives, friends and teachers to create an engaging overview of one the UK’s least known but most important photographers. Ella has also been responsible for ensuring her mother’s work has been acquired by and shown in the Tate gallery.
Unlike other photographers who documented social poverty in Thatcher’s Britain of the 1970s and 1980s, Murtha didn’t just photograph it, she actually lived it as the third of ten children of Irish descent, brought up in a council house in an impoverished suburb of Newcastle. After finding a camera in an abandoned house as a child, photographing her surroundings became a priority. Murtha was determined to expose societal inequality and the struggles of marginalized communities, particularly during the 1970s and 1980s in the UK and the impact of deindustrialisation on the north of England. Her stirring black-and-white photographs are an important historical record of these grim times and earned her the nickname of “the demon snapper” by the local authorities. However, the photos are not all gloom and doom. Their empathetic quality shines through, offering viewers an insider glimpse into daily working class lives. The joys of simple childhood activities and the idea that there’s always hope is here too.
Tish’s story is told via a series of intimate conversations conducted by Murtha’s daughter Ella, that trace the key works and moments in Murtha’s life and career. Her powerful motivations and political views are brought to life through her diary entries, letters and various writings, narrated by Maxine Peake, and accompanied by a patchwork of photographs. Murtha grew up on the streets she photographed, witnessing the dereliction of young lives up close. The figures in her series were often friends, family and neighbors, lending a tender intimacy to her stark black-and-white photos of the desperately poor.
Although Murtha’s work has now found critical acclaim, it was tragically overlooked during her lifetime. The film is a journey of exploration for Ella Murtha as both daughter and custodian of the Tish Murtha archive, a chance to elevate and preserve a legacy that has been lost and to tell the story of an artist from the people who knew Tish and the images she left behind. Tish left school at 16 and had a variety of jobs, from selling hotdogs to working in a gas station. After taking a photography night course at Bath Lane, Newcastle, her lecturer convinced her to apply to the world renowned Documentary Photography course in Newport, Wales, the only one of its kind at the time.
One of Tish Murtha’s most important projects is the series “Youth Unemployment,” which documented the impact of high unemployment rates on the youth in the northeast of England during the economic downturn. Her work highlighted the challenges and frustrations faced by young people who were grappling with unemployment, poverty and a lack of opportunities. Youth Unemployment in the West End of Newcastle was more than double the unemployment rate of the city as a whole. She had first hand experience of what it was like to be young and on unemployment benefits, so she wanted to try to help others who saw no real future for themselves by highlighting the issue.
The film also explores her time in London. Commissioned by The Photographers’ Gallery, Murtha delved into the lives of sex workers in Soho, culminating in her impactful series, “London by Night” (1983). Similar to her documentation of northern English communities, Murtha’s images are always revealing but never sentimental.
Tish Murtha was a brilliant working-class talent who enjoyed early success but did not have that aspirational infrastructure of upward mobility to maintain a long-term career, which her middle-class male contemporaries enjoyed and took for granted. She struggled to sustain a livelihood from photography. Tish Murtha’s career was tragically cut short by her untimely death in 2013 but her legacy lives on through her impactful photographs. Today, with the release of this film and with her work in the collection of one of the world’s top galleries, Tish Murtha’s talents are finally receiving the critical and public recognition they deserve.
Tish is released by Modern Films, in cinemas across the UK and Northern Ireland, 17 November 2023.