The black and white documentary photography of Tish Murtha’s archive captures the social landscape of northern England during the 1980s. From community spirit to the pits of youth employment, Murtha’s highly personal and emotive photos are now in the care of her daughter Ella, ever since Murtha passed away in 2013. Ella has now made it her mission to get her mother’s remarkable images the recognition they deserve.
Born in South Shields, a coastal town near Newcastle Upon Tyne, England, Murtha was the third of ten children. Living on the brink of poverty, her family made up for the lack of material positions with a wealth of creativity. After going from job to job, Murtha got her break when she began an evening photography course at Newcastle College of Art. There, her talent was recognized by British Magnum photographer David Hurn who enrolled her into Newport College of Art’s documentary photography course. Remembering his interview with Murtha, he recalls, “I asked her what she wanted to photograph and she said: ‘I want to take pictures of policemen kicking children,’ and I said, ‘You’re in.’ It was the shortest interview I had ever done because I knew exactly what she meant and I knew she was going to be a social photographer.”
Post-collage, Murtha returned home to document the gritty and often unsettling life in her hometown. Ella recalls, “For as long as I can remember my mam always had her camera around her neck, it went everywhere with her, like it was a part of her.” Murtha’s honest perspective spans over 15 years and documents the area’s brutal struggle with unemployment and the social disadvantages of the working class. Children are captured playing amongst rubble, exploring desolate buildings and jumping on burnt-out cars, and the older generation of ex-miners are seen living out their days in the local pub. “I find my mam’s images filled with tragedy but also joy,” reveals Ella. “I see a celebration of a wonderful community who, although they had nothing, had each other and their imaginations. Everyone was in the same boat and they pulled together to make the best despite the bleak situation and surroundings.”
Covering all six bodies of work; Newport Pub (1976/78); Elswick Kids (1978); Juvenile Jazz Bands (1979); Youth Unemployment (1980); London by Night (1983) and Elswick Revisited (1987 – 1991), the Tish Murtha: Works 1976-1991 exhibition is now showing at The Photographers’ Gallery, London until October 14, 2018. If you can’t make it to London, you can see more from this incredible archive on the Tish Murtha website.