Social documentary photographer Tish Murtha may not have garnered much acclaim for her photographic work while alive, but it is, nevertheless, powerful in what it portrays and remains relevant to this day. A new documentary titled Tish explores Murtha’s career and images with guidance from her daughter, Ella.
Murtha dedicated herself to documenting life in Newcastle and other cities in Northeast England throughout the 1970s and 1980s. This period was at the peak of Thatcherism, which left lasting scars on working-class communities, manifesting in deindustrialization and exacerbated social inequality. Murtha’s work showcased these impacts on the working-class communities she lived and worked in, highlighting the harsh realities of those marginalized communities.
Murtha’s black and white images are raw and gritty as a direct reflection of the location and time period. They offer an honest document of life at the time. And yet, true to life, they also show occasional glimpses of humor and joy, though always juxtaposed with the harsh reality of life in the area.
Unlike many documentary photographers, Murtha lived the same life as those she photographed. She was one of ten children and grew up in a council house (a form of British public housing) in Elswick in Newcastle. Perhaps because of this, she felt obligated to help those in her community and saw photography as a way to do so. It was a means to draw attention to what her family and friends were going through.
While she enjoyed some early success, she unfortunately never garnered significant acclaim and was unable to earn a living from her photography. She died in poverty, much like her subjects. Since her death, her work has been exhibited multiple times, and her daughter also published Youth Unemployment, a book of her mother’s photographs.
Directed by Paul Sng and narrated by the talented Maxine Peake, Tish delves into the intricacies of Murtha’s career and artistry, guided by the poignant insights of her daughter, Ella. It is packed with emotion, providing new insight into Murtha’s work. The documentary not only tells the story of an incredible photographer but also shines a light on poverty, unemployment, and class prejudices.
Tish is playing in select theaters in the United Kingdom now, and complete theater listings are available on the Modern Films website.