Ben Woolhead takes a detailed look at a new, eponymously-titled documentary about Tish Murtha, a Tyneside photographer who honed her craft in Newport with the aid of David Hurn before capturing the grit of the 1980s British underclass, and whose legacy is being preserved 10 years after her death thanks to daughter Ella and filmmaker Paul Sng.
Tish might never have happened. During the Q&A that follows the Cardiff screening of his documentary about the late photographer Tish Murtha, Paul Sng reveals that her daughter Ella, custodian of her work, was initially opposed to the whole project. When Ella finally came around to the idea, she stipulated that her mother’s politics had to be front and centre rather than Photoshopped out.
She needn’t have worried – and, in truth, it’s hard to imagine how playing down the political significance of Tish’s pictures would be possible, even with someone other than Sng in the director’s chair. The images Tish took of her native Elswick – especially those collected in the posthumously published volume Youth Unemployment – depict a whole generation written off from birth, innocent victims of social and economic circumstance, caught in the pincer movement of industrial decline and Thatcherite policies that dehumanised or simply abandoned those in need. She witnessed her own brothers left to rot, with no opportunities and no hope of escape.
Little wonder, then, that Tish cut ties with Newcastle’s Side Gallery over their perceived “poverty is beautiful, maaaaan” attitude to her work. For her, it was never a matter of mere aesthetics, of taking pretty pictures for people to pore over, but of using her camera to give value to the downtrodden and neglected – to simply show them the respect of acknowledging their existence.
For someone who was growing up in a comfortable middle-class bubble less than 15 miles away, the power of Tish’s photos is perennial – an eye-opening insight into another world, one of which I was entirely ignorant. And yet there are also points of familiarity, of identification. As Sng acknowledges in his conversation with Chapter’s Claire Vaughan after the film, the images resonate not only with anger but also with empathy, and those gathered together for the book Elswick Kids capture something of the essence of childhood – the freedom from the stresses and strains of adult life, the irresistible urge to explore, the ability to make one’s own entertainment whatever the circumstances, the simple joy of camaraderie – with a warmth that never threatens to tip over into saccharine sentimentality. Those mucky, smiling faces speak a language we can all understand.
One of the biggest challenges that social documentary photographers face is that of gaining access, establishing trust and rapport and working in a way that is neither disrespectful nor exploitative. As the film underlines, these were not problems for Tish, who she was born into the community she photographed and told its story from the inside. Those in her images were not merely “subjects”; she knew them by name, and indeed many were family. She was single-minded in her focus – cue David Hurn recounting how, in her interview for the School Of Documentary Photography in Newport, she told him that she wanted to take photos of “policemen kicking kids”. Needless to say, it instantly earned her a place on the prestigious course.
From the moment she serendipitously discovered a camera in one of the derelict buildings that were her teenage playground, Tish began to produce evidence of her natural flair for the medium. She already seemed to have an unerring eye for a picture, something that is very difficult to learn; what she needed was self-confidence. Formal training, first at college in Newcastle under Dennis Birkwood and then in Newport under Hurn, gave her technical skills and know-how – but, much more importantly, it validated her own approach as an artist.
As her mentors recall, Tish could be a difficult pupil. Birkwood bent the college course so it suited her better, while Hurn remembers with a smile a spirited student who challenged him at every turn but who in private took advice on board and meticulously catalogued her work. One of the most wonderful moments of the film sees Ella showing Hurn the receipt for the new camera her mother bought in Newport, for which he was the guarantor, thereby very literally facilitating the work that she would go on to produce.
The images that Tish shot in Newport – inside raucous pubs, of working-class street parties for the Silver Jubilee in 1977 – are indicative of the sort of social history that she wanted to record, and she left the School Of Documentary Photography all set up to forge a successful career. But, tragically, it never happened.
Ella makes for an excellent interviewer, falling into easy, natural conversation with family and friends, eager to learn more about Tish’s life and work from those who knew her best. (In this respect, there are strong similarities with Sng’s previous film, Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché, spurred by a daughter’s curiosity about her mother.) Ella’s inquisitiveness is at least partly prompted by a nagging feeling of guilt that her unplanned arrival made Tish a single mother and restricted her opportunities for work – so the reassurance that Ella receives from Tish’s long-time friend Daisy, who Tish commissioned to photograph the birth, comes as palpable catharsis.
The documentary offers compelling alternative reasons why Tish was sidelined and ignored: her own stubborn refusal to compromise or play the game, in part – but, more significantly, structural socioeconomic barriers and gatekeeping processes (both overt and covert) that perpetually denied her a seat at the art world table. When she died of a brain aneurysm in 2013, a day before her 57th birthday, she had been broken by the system, reduced to the ignominy of applying for menial jobs to make ends meet and describing photography on her CV as merely a hobby.
In the years since Tish’s death, the indefatigable Ella has been on a crusade to right the injustice. That process was kickstarted by Bluecoat’s publication of Elswick Kids, Youth Unemployment and Juvenile Jazz Bands and will undoubtedly be accelerated by Sng’s fine film. Tish’s images now hang in the rarefied space of the Tate as part of the gallery’s permanent collection – something that would have been utterly unthinkable during her lifetime – and the documentary gives tantalising glimpses of work that might feature in future publications (her Newport portfolio and her final project in Middlesbrough).
But Tish is about more than giving a singular unjustly neglected artist her due through bringing her work to wider attention. It’s about recognising that social and economic deprivation hasn’t disappeared; as Sng’s 2018 book project Invisible Britain highlighted, it persists today, in colour rather than black and white. No other country in Europe invests as heavily in preserving and indeed extending inequality; austerity continues to bite, benefitting a select few while actively immiserating millions. Tish was herself a victim, at the time of her death afraid to put the heating on and terrified of facing welfare sanctions. The film underlines that we urgently need photographers like her, and the likes of Nick Hedges before her, to document the devastating consequences of government policy.
But that will only happen with significant changes to the structures that shut Tish out and continue to frustrate and inhibit other socially committed photographers embedded within working-class communities. (In the Q&A, Sng mentions the example of Jim Mortram, recently denied funding despite two letters of recommendation from photographers of stature.) With social, economic and bureaucratic barriers to access, opportunity and funding still firmly in place, the story will remain the same. Here’s hoping that Tish’s message resonates far beyond cinema auditoriums.
Dir: Paul Sng (15, 90 mins)
words BEN WOOLHEAD