Tish Murtha: Works 1976 – 1991 is a new exhibition at London's Photographers' Gallery which charts the remarkable accomplishments of the documentary photographer Tish Murtha and offers a tender and frank perspective on a historic moment of social deprivation and instability in Britain.
In 1976, aged 20, Tish Murtha left Newcastle upon Tyne to study at the influential School of Documentary Photography at Newport College of Art under the guidance of Magnum photographer David Hurn. The earliest series in this show, Newport Pub, dates from this period – where Murtha photographed the realities of everyday life for the regulars of a typical public house, The New Found Out in a deprived area.
Murtha felt a genuine sense of obligation to the communities of her home in the North East and had chosen a course of study which would make her a more effective photographer, one who could highlight the social disadvantages that she herself had suffered.
On returning to the North East, Murtha created Elswick Kids, documenting the children playing on her local streets. Though not exhibited at the time, it led to her employment by a government-funded scheme as a Community Photographer by the Side Gallery in Newcastle.
This exhibition includes two bodies of work Murtha produced on the scheme, Juvenile Jazz Bands and Youth Unemployment. Juvenile Jazz Bands documented children’s marching bands, which were an important part of life in the North East. Initially made with the backing of the band organisers, Murtha defied their expectations of glamorous images and instead produced critically engaging imagery, focusing on the regimental drills and militaristic nature of the bands. She was also drawn to the impromptu Jazz Bands that sprung up, self-organised by the children who had been rejected from the official troupes and paid them equal attention in the series.
Murtha’s interest in unemployed youth grew out of her own experiences and an earlier project she had created in Newcastle for the housing charity Shelter. Made in West Newcastle, Youth Unemployment combines sharp social observation with a lyrical sense of place and form. Murtha witnessed the dereliction of young lives up close and the figures that populate her series were often friends, family and neighbours. These strong personal ties to the subject matter compelled her towards creating work that could help those being offered little assistance in times of mass factory and mine closures.
Witnessing government policies beginning to take hold on her community, she used her photography to confront the reality and impact of the political decision making of the day. On the 8th February 1981, Murtha’s work was raised as a subject for debate in the House of Commons.
Youth Unemployment is undoubtedly Murtha’s most celebrated body of work. The Guardian’s photography critic Sean O’Hagan wrote: "There is much grittiness and poverty on display here… , too, and, everywhere you look, class rears its divisive head. Tish Murtha's black-and-white portrait of a couple lounging on a bed, watched from an adjacent cot by their curious child, is a study in enervation . . . [it] was taken in 1980. It could, though, be 1930."
After the Youth Unemployment exhibition in 1981, Murtha moved to London where she was commissioned by The Photographers’ Gallery to create a series on the sex industry in Soho for the group exhibition London by Night (1983). The work paired Murtha’s photographs with texts by her collaborator Karen Leslie who worked as a dancer and a stripper. Together the text and photographs still stand as a powerful critique of the sex trade.
The final series in the show, Elswick Revisited touches on racism and the impact of increasing cultural diversity in the area she knew so well. As with all of her photography, the series is an impassioned investigation into the lived reality of political policies, living conditions and communities struggling to survive in austere and transitional times. Parallels to contemporary living conditions, austerity politics and growing social inequality, bring a timely urgency to viewing Murtha’s work.