A new documentary revisits the legacy of the overlooked documentary photographer whose arresting portraits from the 70s and 80s depict the impoverished communities of the northeast
When the Magnum photographer David Hurn interviewed Tish Murtha for a place on his then recently-established documentary photography course at the Newport College of Art in 1976, he asked the 20-year-old what she wanted to photograph. Murtha replied simply, “I want to learn to take photographs of policemen kicking kids.” Hurn didn’t require anything further, she was in.
Growing up in Elswick in the West End of Newcastle – “considered to be the worst square mile in England at that time”, according to her younger sister Eileen – Murtha had understood the power a camera could wield long before she was privy to the instrument’s mechanics: in her early teens she found a camera in one of the derelict houses she and her siblings would often explore. Though it had no film inside, she took to carrying it as a kind of deterrent against the curious people who’d stalk the curbs in their cars nearby.
Returning to Elswick years later, Murtha began taking pictures of local children finding joy despite the social deprivation of the late 70s and the repercussions of Thatcher’s punative policies in the 1980s, making the seminal photo series Youth Unemployment and Elswick Kids, published by her daughter Ella in 2017 and 2018 respectively, following Murtha’s death from a brain aneurysm in 2013.
“They were strong and they were powerful,” recalls the late Chris Killip in a new documentary about the photographer, “They were like her.” Directed by Paul Sng in collaboration with Ella, Tish is a vital component of Murtha’s legacy, foregrounding the fiercely political sentiment that underpins much of her oeuvre, and introducing a collection of writing that echoes the distinctiveness of her pictures, read aloud by Maxine Peake.
An advocate for her community in an era before discourse around ethics and ownership in relation to class and documentarians had become mainstream, Murtha remained undeterred by injustices she saw in the industry throughout her lifetime, separating from Side Gallery when she perceived their principles to be unaligned with her own, and inviting local critics to engage in a discussion after an exhibition of her photographs of juvenile jazz bands led her to become known as the ‘Demon Snapper’. Her work has since been acquired by Tate, while in March a Newcastle housing development opened in her name, the moniker selected by kids from a local primary school.
Below, Ella Murtha shares what it was like growing up with Tish and how politics shaped her mother’s photography.
Growing up, how conscious were you of your mother’s work and her politics?
Ella Murtha: I can’t imagine our lives without photography or politics! My mam lived and breathed photography, the camera was an extension of her. Our walls were covered in images; the enlarger was part of our furniture. When she had been up all night printing, I swear the smell of fix and chemicals came out of her pores. She was always very political, too. As a teenager, she became an active member of the Workers Revolution Party and used to attend meetings in Branding Village, Jesmond. She was passionate about it, and I think with photography she found the perfect medium for her activism. Her political hero was Tony Benn, and I know she would have forgiven me for absolutely anything except voting Tory.
And when did the idea for the documentary come about?
Ella Murtha: I had been asked a few times and it never felt right. I didn’t trust people’s motives. It was imperative that if a film about my mam was made, it was done right. During the first lockdown Paul Sng messaged asking if I had thought of making a documentary – we had been friends online for a few years – and I said I had, but didn’t want to. He asked if we could talk at least – we ended up having this really long phone call. He listened, I listened, and we agreed to meet. We both wanted the same thing: to make a film with people who actually knew my mam, so audiences could learn who Tish was as a person and what she stood for. Talking so openly and honestly, my walls came down.
“She would have forgiven me for absolutely anything except voting Tory” – Ella Murtha
The film is equal parts personal and political, which channels a lot of what Tish’s work was about – the Youth Unemployment series for example, was driven by her brothers’ experiences. What were your objectives going into the film?
Ella Murtha: I wanted to honour my mam as a person, artist, and activist. Her work was important, it mattered. Her page in history was missing – she always existed in it, but it had been lost – and I couldn’t let that happen. When I was sorting through her stuff after she died, I found all these things she had written. Her voice was so powerful, and it made me really sad that no one knew how incredible she was. I needed to get her words out for other people to realise how talented she was; we don’t have any footage of her, so the only way to bring her character to life was with her letters. Having Maxine Peake voice them is a dream come true – to know Maxine is to know and understand Tish. They have the same political values. And I wanted people from similar backgrounds to recognise their own lives and history within her words and images.
The film features a number of interviews, including those with Tish’s siblings – some of her earliest subjects. What was it like reflecting on Tish’s work and life like this with your family?
Ella Murtha: It was so important that my mam’s siblings were in the film. This was their life and story to tell. The Murtha’s feature heavily in the work, and it helps me understand the harsh realities of what they had to endure, purely because of where they were from. It was hard and relentless, and they all had to find ways to cope, but they were resilient and resourceful, their humour and spirit shines through. Sadly, we lost my uncle Glenn earlier this year and he never got to see the finished film, but he was so happy to be part of it. He was really proud of my mam and the photographs, they reminded him of his youth – my mam took so many photos of him, she called him ‘the cherub’. It breaks my heart that his relatively short life was so difficult.
In one clip, Tish’s friend – the photographer Ethel Cass – makes the important point that her work was to do with childhood, not poverty. And Chris Killip also adds, ‘The penny dropped later, that what they had in common was unemployment.’ Can you speak on the significance of this distinction – the idea that, while her work highlighted areas and experiences of depravation, her focus was on the people?
Ella Murtha: It is always about people. She wasn’t interested in buildings or material things; it all centered around the people in her world. Being taken into care and separated from her family was the catalyst for her lifelong politically driven and socially conscious views. Her sense of injustice was palpable. Her photos are almost autobiographical, there is part of her in every image. She is showing us what she saw and felt was important enough to be preserved – she never snapped haphazardly.
“It is always about people. She wasn’t interested in buildings or material things; it all centered around the people in her world” – Ella Murtha
Elsewhere, Tish describes her frustrations with the term ‘community photographer’, stating that it ‘makes me think of middle class trendies’. How would you describe her approach to the medium, and how did she describe it?
Ella Murtha: My mam’s interest in photography was on a practical level. She carried the camera she found in an abandoned house to protect herself and the other Elswick Kids. She was always in the midst of whatever she was capturing, mentally and physically, and she wanted to stimulate discussions on real issues through her work. That is why she found the term ‘community photographer’ so patronising. She described herself as a documentary photographer, and she believed documentary photography had long-term historical values, in and beyond the community.
The UK is once again experiencing economic austerity generated by another Tory government. What’s your take on the way photographers are engaging with these issues today, and is there anyone in particular you feel is continuing Tish’s work to some extent?
Ella Murtha: There are definitely photographers who are working in a similar way and are equally as enraged by the current political situation as my mam was. I know Kirsty Mackay spent a lot of time this summer working with people forced to use food banks in Bristol due to the cost of living crisis. I think she is one of the good ones. I also really admire Joanne Coates – she reminds me of my mam. She has the same fire in her belly, intelligence, and speaks with total honesty. Her work with rural working class communities is fantastic. They both spend time with people, talking and listening, and the pictures they make are wonderful because of that trust.
Finally, was there anything new you learned about Tish while making the film?
Ella Murtha: The biggest thing was that it wasn’t my fault she couldn't make it in the photography world. I had genuinely thought it was my fault, but I came to realise she just didn’t know her place. As a working-class woman, she was expected to be grateful for any little scrap; she was never getting a place at the table. I fully respect her for standing up for herself and feel even closer to her now.
Tish, directed by Paul Sng and narrated by Maxine Peake, is released in the UK on November 17, 2023. Visit the film’s website for cinema listings.