Underappreciated for years, Tish Murtha's searing documentary work from the 1970s and 80s is now getting a radical reappraisal - and a retrospective curated by Val Williams and Gordon MacDonald
“She believed that photography was an important form of visual communication that could stimulate discussions about real-life situations and captured accurate records of the world we live in,” Ella Murtha told BJP last year. “She was trying to force people to look at the truth and learn from it.”
Born in South Shields in 1956, Tish Murtha left school aged just 16 and supported herself by selling hotdogs and working in a petrol station. She found her way into photography anyway, studying at the influential School of Documentary Photography at Newport College of Art, then returning to the North East to record the social deprivation she herself had suffered, as well as photographing in London.
Her work was exhibited at Newcastle’s Side Gallery, commissioned by Shelter, and debated in the House of Commons while she was alive but, becoming a single mother and then dying just short of her 57th birthday, she never published a photobook, and her work lay under-appreciated for years. That all started to change in 2017, when her daughter Ella spearheaded the publication of her seminal project, Youth Unemployment; now The Photographers’ Gallery is dedicating a large show to her work.
Tish Murtha: Works 1976 – 1991 will show six of Murtha’s major projects – Newport Pub (1976/78); Elswick Kids (1978); Juvenile Jazz Bands (1979); Youth Unemployment (1980); London by Night (1983) and Elswick Revisited (1987 – 1991), as well as personal letters and ephemeral material from the Tish Murtha Archive.
Newport Pub dates from her time studying under Magnum photographer David Hurn; Elswick Kids from her return to the North East. This project helped her win employment as a Community Photographer at Side Gallery, a government-funded scheme which helped her produce two more bodies of work – Juvenile Jazz Bands and Youth Unemployment. The Jazz Bands were an important part of growing up at the time in the region; Youth Unemployment shows the devastating impact of deindustrialisation on young people in west Newcastle.
After Youth Unemployment was exhibited in 1981, Murtha moved to London, and was commissioned by The Photographers’ Gallery to shoot the sex industry in Soho for a group show, London by Night. She chose to make her series in collaboration with Karen Leslie, a dancer and stripper, and Leslie’s texts plus Murtha’s images make for a searing critique of the sex industry.
In Elswick Revisited Murtha returned to her hometown, documenting the impact of increasing cultural diversity in the area and the rising spectre of racism. Tish Murtha: Works 1976 – 1991 is co-curated by Val Williams and Gordon MacDonald with Karen McQuaid, and with the help of Ella Murtha and the Tish Murtha Archive.
Tish Murtha: Works 1976 – 1991 is on show from 15 June – 14 October at The Photographers’ Gallery https://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibition/tish-murtha-works-1976-1991 Click here to read BJP’s interview with Ella Murtha, first published by bjp-online on 24 August 2017