Join our mailing list for latest news and features

  • Interests:

Build Hollywood

Build Hollywood

Build Hollywood

Build Hollywood


Tish Murtha, an impassioned photographer unable to escape the poverty she exposed

BUILDHOLLYWOOD partners with Modern Films for a special community screening of ‘Tish’ at The CarWash – an intimate  documentary about visionary photographer Tish Murtha who was committed to documenting the struggle and inequality of the working-class communities that framed her upbringing.

In an interview for Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour Tish Murtha’s daughter Ella explained her mother’s first camera – found dumped and broken – was a weapon. A way of deterring creepy posh, middleclass kerb crawlers from stalking the girls and women of Elswick.

Catching up with Paul Sng director of ‘Tish’, a documentary about Murtha’s marvellously evocative, socially enmeshed and engaged work, he used the same word, “Her camera was a weapon, she used it to combat what she saw as the effects of Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberalism, government policies that left a generation behind and that continue to have an impact on subsequent generations.”

Sng became aware of Murtha’s black and white photography around 2013, “One of the first images that really captivated me was a picture of Tish’s brother Glenn jumping from the first floor of a derelict house onto a pile of mattresses. I remember doing that in my childhood in the 80s in southeast London. It’s just a great photograph. Everybody at the scene is looking at Glenn captured mid-air, and you’ve got one of Tish’s other brothers, Mark, who’s holding this dummy, and everyone, including Mark, is looking at Glenn except the dummy, who’s looking at Tish. I don’t know whether this was deliberate or not but it’s just amazing.”


Words by Adrian Burnham

This photograph, ‘Kids Jumping on to Mattresses’ (1981), is one of a series Murtha made documenting Youth Unemployment. Like all her work it dramatically records the dire material circumstances of people living in Elswick – a notoriously ‘rough’ district in Newcastle upon Tyne – but never descends into poverty porn. Murtha’s evident patience, visual acuity, her being in the right place at the right time to make such remarkable images, these qualities are matched by boundless compassion for her family, friends, and neighbours. Sng puts it succinctly, “She had no other option but to use her camera to defend her people.”

Regarding another photograph from the same series, ‘Karen on Overturned Chair’ (1981), Murtha herself remarked, “Behind the empty talk of increased leisure opportunities and freedom from repetitive labour stands the spectre of enforced idleness, wasted resources and the squandering of human potential. This is vandalism on a grand scale.”

In the late 1970s and early 80s Elswick’s unemployment rate was twice that of the city as a whole. Amid mass mine and factory closures, Murtha’s practice confronts the reality and impact of political decisions made many miles away by people who it appeared were willing to sacrifice whole swathes of the country in a bid to curb union powers and promote deindustrialisation. Some might argue that MPs didn’t realise the extent of devastation being visited on the north east especially. Fact is, on February 8th 1981, Murtha’s work was raised as a subject for debate in the House of Commons. So, they knew, they just didn’t care.

Whilst being a remarkable visual witness to such poverty and hardship, this tragic vein that runs through all the work is counterbalanced with the comedic. It’s evident from her very early photographs featuring Elswick kids. While never realised as an exhibition at the time of their making in the late 1970s, today this body of work recalls an era when children had the freedom to play unsupervised, larking about in the streets, on abandoned vehicles and bombed out buildings with friends, making mischief for sure but what jumps out time and again from one of Murtha’s first proper forays into photography is the children’s glee, their energy and imagination, the smiling, laughing faces for whom local hardships pale to insignificance, what shines through is compassion, focus, mutual regard, and an exuberant togetherness.

Much more than social documentary, narratives are implied, and there’s an almost surreal edge to some pictures. This is in part to do with their candid production, Murtha shared with Nan Goldin, that state of being embedded to such an extent in the world she’s observing that her subjects never look self-conscious. And not as extreme, obviously, but there are times when Diane Arbus comes to mind. Sng smiles at the thought, “The Diane Arbus of Newcastle!”

He continued talking about another aspect of Murtha’s work that commands attention, “There’s something imperative about each shot. You kind of wonder about the before and after of certain photographs. For example, the image of Cuddles Playing Cards (1981) [Depicting an insouciant youth smoking and eyeing his hand with grubby fingers] What were the shots before and after? But really, we don’t need to know, it’s part of what magnetises Murtha’s photographs, makes them so prepossessing.” Life, the ongoing daily drama that’s happening all around her is repeatedly honed to single quintessential scenes.

Given such a short, impecunious period she was able to practicing her art – Ella could never remember her mother ever making any money from photography, instead she had to toil in a meat packing factory to survive, she died penniless from a brain haemorrhage in 2013 – Murtha still left six major, outstanding and sustained photographic series: Newport Pub (1976/78); Elswick Kids (1978); Juvenile Jazz Bands (1979); Youth Unemployment (1980); London by Night (1983) and Elswick Revisited (1987 -91).

Her Juvenile Jazz Bands’ body of work was undertaken initially with the support of local band leaders. Murtha insisted on giving equal representation to the informal troupes made up of kids who weren’t allowed, or couldn’t afford, to join the official ones. This earned her the opprobrium of the band ‘establishment’, they referred to her in letters to local newspapers as ‘the demon snapper’. Murtha’s response was to say that the kids’ informal gatherings demonstrated all the imagination, spontaneity, and spirited playfulness that the organised Jazz Bands so lacked.

Now, more than two generations on from when Murtha was making such truthful, tender, and beguiling imagery, does it still have a relevance? Sng certainly thinks so, “Her work is circular, it’s just as poignant and provocative now at it was in the 70s and 80s. There are places, particularly in the north of England, where social deprivation continues to be rife, where people struggle to make their voices heard. Now, when the arts are being de-funded, when educational opportunity and access is shrinking, her work showing people the system tries so hard to ignore is powerful.”

BUILDHOLLYWOOD is thrilled to host a special community screening of Paul Sng’s film ‘Tish’ at The CarWash event space in Shoreditch. Sharing the documentary plus an extensive UK public display featuring many images from the Tish Murtha archive is, we trust, a contribution to remedying the relative obscurity of such a fabulous and principled photographer. As Sng and Tish’s daughter Ella have both said, “It’s so important that finally this female, working class artist is beginning to get the recognition she so richly deserves.”

Previous article


In the Camden arches, Tate Britain’s Women in Revolt! comes to life

Next article


Celebrating the 6 winners of The Photographers' Gallery's New Talent awards