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Tish Murtha’s Art of the Excluded

A new film celebrates photographer Tish Murtha, who intimately captured life on the margins during Thatcherism’s rise – and demonstrated art’s potential to undermine the powerful.

'Glenn On The Wall' from the series Elswick Kids (1978) by Tish Murtha (Credit: Ella Murtha, All rights reserved.)

Earlier this month, the Tyneside popstar Sam Fender headlined two huge sell-out shows at St James’s Park in Newcastle: a remarkable breakthrough for a working-class musician from England’s most deprived region. At a time when the arts are dominated by the wealthy, the well-connected and the well-located, Fender’s success story—a sort of real-life embodiment of one of the more optimistic Springsteen lyrics—is to be celebrated. And yet it also has the feeling of an exception that proves the rule. How on earth, we might wonder, did it all go so right for this pro-Corbyn everyman from the post-industrial North East, a guy raised by a single mother on benefits who now writes songs excoriating the DWP 

That the vast majority of people from Fender’s background do not share his extraordinary (deserved) luck is a fact brought devastatingly home by a magnificent new film about the life of the late Tyneside photographer Tish Murtha, which opened the Sheffield DocFest this month. A collaboration between director Paul Sng, producer Jen Corcoran and cinematographer Hollie Galloway, Tish resembles the music of Fender in subtly, heroically insisting on the validity of leftist working-class art at a time when it often feels like there is a McCarthyite campaign against such perspectives even existing. 

As Tish eloquently shows, Murtha herself was a figure who challenged orthodoxies at every turn. Born in South Shields in 1956 and brought up in Elswick in the West End of Newcastle, Murtha came from a large family with Irish-Catholic roots which survived—sometimes only barely and with great ingenuity—in one of the toughest corners of the post-war North East: a scorched-earth of demolished houses and shut-down factories hardly mitigated by the welfare-state safety-nets of the day.  

A vital corrective to the lately fashionable Tory-Geordie tendency, which imagines the North-East proletariat to be a phalanx of hard-working patriots who have always loved the military and monarchy, Murtha’s childhood was lived in a kind of semi-anarchy. This backdrop would instil in her a deep hatred of the authorities, and eventually give rise to her creative idiosyncrasy. Her brothers foraged for scrap amid the ruins of a post-industrial landscape growing ever bleaker as the Seventies progressed, or were humiliated on workfare schemes which dismissed them as hopeless scroungers from the wrong side of town. Meanwhile, encouraged in part by the supportive efforts of her mother, Murtha found a way of responding to her surroundings in more structured artistic terms. 

Enrolling on a photography course at Bath Lane College on the edge of Elswick’s urban wasteland, Murtha’s talent was quickly recognised by her lecturer Dennis Birkwood, and was supported by Mick Henry, also her tutor, who in 1976 helped to secure a funded place on a seminal course at Newport College of Art and Design led by documentary photographer David Hurn. In Hurn’s telling—an exquisite highlight of Tish—Murtha’s admission to the course was flagged through after she told him in the interview that she wanted to ‘take pictures of policemen kicking children’. 

After a college project in Newport documenting the characters in a local pub, Murtha returned to Elswick to make good on this ambition (one of her most famous works features three teenage lads reclining on a brick wall decorated with the graffito’ COPS PISS OFF’). In an extraordinary series of exhibitions mainly sponsored by Newcastle’s Side Gallery (currently threatened with closure), Murtha recorded the life of the West End at the precise moment the ambiguous efforts of post-war local and national governments to check deindustrialisation were giving way to a more brutal Thatcherite strategy of’ ‘managed decline’.  

Her masterpieces—especially Juvenile Jazz Bands (1979) and Youth Unemployment (1980)—depicted the listlessness, vitality and sense of fun at the heart of this burgeoning social catastrophe. Kids jump down from a ruined house onto a precariously arranged pile of mattresses. A teenage boy examines a hand of cards with a half-smoked tab sticking out of the side of his mouth. A young woman sits on an upturned armchair while idly poking the detritus of what looks like a bombsite but is in fact just Elswick in the early Eighties. This was the unmaking of the English working class rendered from the inside, by someone who knew its intricate everyday rituals and felt visceral anger that this so-called underclass was being abandoned in the name of monetarist economics. As Huw Lemmey once commented in this magazine, ‘Murtha’s work put the realism into social realism’.  

Though the makers of Tish are not able to show footage of Murtha herself (because none exists), they do a fantastic job of doing justice both to her perspective—by way of letters and other fragments deftly narrated by Maxine Peake—and those of her subjects, especially her younger brother Glenn, who featured in many of the most iconic photos, and who is visibly upset and damaged by the socio-political betrayals of his youth. A feeling of clannishness and intimacy runs throughout, partly by way of Tish’s contemporary protagonist, Murtha’s daughter Ella, who has crowdfunded the preservation of her mother’s work, and who acts as a sparky and sympathetic main interviewer here. 

But the real emotional crux of the film occurs in its last stages, when a line is drawn between the political misdeeds of the Thatcherite moment and those of the recent past. After moving to London in 1983—where she compiled the electric London By Night exhibition and gave birth to Ella—Murtha’s career faltered, such that she would never be able to maintain financial stability, in spite of her singular talent. Tish is subtle in its exploration of the reasons behind this professional collapse, hinting by turns at the misogyny of the photography industry, regional marginalisation (Murtha returned to the North East once again after her London sojourn, this time for good) and various embedded forms of class snobbery. 

In the end, all of the above came together for Murtha to ensure an almost unbearably tragic finale to her narrative. Unfailingly brave and righteous in highlighting political specifics rather than going for a vague ‘struggle against adversity’ frame, the makers of Tish combine footage of Tony Blair demanding that single mothers ‘visit a job centre, not just stay at home waiting for the benefit cheque every week’ in 1997 with a harrowing account of Murtha’s struggle with Britain’s punitive welfare culture in the run-up to her death from a brain haemorrhage in 2013. The final sequence, in which Peake reads out extracts from Murtha’s job-centre paperwork—full of tortuously humiliating appeals that she is a good worker with adaptable skills, a side-interest in photography and so on—is quite simply one of the most upsetting pieces of film I have ever seen. 

Energetic in ways that resemble its extraordinary subject, humane and funny through its series of remarkable interviews and uncompromising in its political implications, Tish is an essential piece of filmmaking which deserves to be endlessly repeated on prime-time TV. Aside from being a long-overdue celebration of one of the greatest photographers in British history, its underlying message and moral is that a society which does not support working-class creativity in practical ways will be decimated by ever-deepening and more numerous human tragedies.