As part of the Portrait(s) Festival in Vichy, an exhibition of twenty photographs by the British photographer Tish Murtha, who died at the age of 56, shows a clear and straightforward vision of the social misery of North East England during the Thatcher era.
A young man clings to a window frame. He is looking into the distance with desperation, as if the horizon were a solid wall and the sky a locked door. Like him, many of the people photographed by Tish Murtha are the face of palpable anguish. Often idle, unemployed, they wander the streets in search of an occupation or mental distraction. Children play in the rubble while mothers, huge tattoos on their arms, gaze annoyed at the asphalt landscape spread before them. Young people are hanging out, a cigarette stuck between their teeth, their stares blank. The world captured by Tish Murtha represents a grim social reality in which the working classes get the brunt of the harsh market laws introduced by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. The photographer inserted herself into the life of Elswick, a neighborhood in her hometown, Newcastle. She portrayed its inhabitants, friends, family, and corner regulars, looking at them with kindness, benevolence, and complicity, yet not without hesitating to reveal the harsh living conditions she was herself subject to as part of a program to help the unemployed.
The third of ten children, she grew up in this poor neighborhood of Newcastle and was familiar with the economic and social difficulties of the community. In 1976, at the age of twenty, she enrolled in the Newport College of Art’s school of documentary photography created by David Hurn, a photographer and member of the Magnum Agency. Two years later, she graduated with the intention of documenting the life in her hometown, photographing the marginalized classes. She went on to make images “with love, but also with anger,” as she put it. In fact, Tish Murtha’s photographs are a denunciation as much as a testimony of an insider and a close friend of the people she portrays. Her portraits capture the colorful life of a population otherwise reduced to numbers, statistics, and red tape. She gives misery a human face, yet never forgets that there is always room for joy, as in the photograph showing a father holding his daughter in his arms, his smile beaming with happiness.
By Jean-Baptiste Gauvin
Tish Murtha, Festival Portrait(s)
June 14 to September 8, 2019
Centre Culturel de Vichy, 15 Maréchal Foch, 03200 Vichy