It was the shortest interview Hurn ever had with a prospective student applying to the School of Documentary Photography at the University of Wales, Newport. Murtha’s response was neither cheap theatrics nor exploitative pulp, but rather a simple point of fact. Hurn immediately recognized Murtha was the real deal.
As the third of 10 children of Irish descent growing up in West End of Newcastle upon Tyne, Patricia Anne “Tish” Murtha saw the abject desperation of the working class systemically targeted, exploited, and abandoned. While the Swinging Sixties took London by storm, northern towns like Newcastle remained trapped in the past, a world filled with harrowing tales of class oppression ripped from the pages of a Charles Dickens novel.
The Murtha family lived in Elswick, a veritable wasteland that had been dubbed “the worst square mile in England.” As soon as the children were old enough, they joined their father on the streets picking scrap, a position that kept them soldered to society’s bottom rung.
When Murtha was six, the family was evicted from their home; the children trafficked among abusive nuns. Though they were able to reunite they suffered under their father’s abusive regime. Murtha carried scars on her body along with the pride she took in never letting him see her cry.
By the time she faced Hurn, she was just 20 years old but had already seen more than people twice her age — and she had the pictures to prove it. So why isn’t Tish Murtha a household name?
The answer lies in TISH, the new feature documentary from filmmaker Paul Sng which chronicles Murtha’s tumultuous life through a spellbinding blend of photographs, memories, and letters from the artist herself, narrated by English actor Maxine Peake.
A Family Affair
TISH is a family affair, in the best sense of the term, opening with her daughter Ella Murtha, who runs the Tish Murtha Estate. The resemblance between mother and daughter is striking, not simply in their enormous eyes and striking cheekbones but in their shared spirit of the warrior.
“Both Tish and Ella are very protective of the work and of the people they work with and care about. Both are very stubborn and I think that can be a good thing, sticking with your principles. For them, what you make is as important as how you make it,” says director Paul Sng.
“The ethics of making work that’s inclusive that values the people you work with, rather than seeing them as ‘subjects.’ Ella will challenge you, and that’s really good. As creative people the more you interrogate it the more you realize that being challenge is what takes the work from being good to being great.”
As TISH progresses, we are brought into a world where circumstance continuously threatens to crush and destroy all in its path. Unlike many of her contemporaries, Murtha did not need to “find” a story to tell: hers, and that of her loved ones, was screaming in the wind.
She took up photography as a teen, photographing scenes of Elswick that are as intricate as they are intimate. Murtha was the consummate insider who recognized the camera could be wielded as a both a tool and a weapon in the ongoing fight for basic human rights. She photographed her friends and family as they were, children lost to a system that held them with nothing but contempt and disdain.
But rather than create salacious scenes of poverty and dissolution for the tongue-wagging liberal gaze, Murtha used photography to challenge the status quo — both in its politics and its presumption about who and what constitutes art. Her best-known series, Elswick Kids and Youth Unemployment, capture the stark realities of working class life during Margaret Thatcher’s reign with a profound sense of both empathy and rage.
“Tish understood how terrible the world was and she knew it was going to get worse,” says Sng. “It is very brave to stand up and tell other people. She had a target: the British political system that instills these levels of inequality, and has continued to do so for the last 40, 50 years.”
Passing the Torch
Tish Murtha died on March 13, 2013, just one day before her 57th birthday, in a state of penury that is almost incomprehensible. In the dead of winter, she lived without heat for fear of the cost, desperately sending resume after resume for service jobs, writing cover letters politely pleading for work to no avail.
“Tish had to be a photographer,” says Sng. “She tried other things but she couldn’t fit into someone else’s rhythm. It’s a rigid thing to work in a company where there are a lot of rules, because artists are meant to break rules. She was somebody who was driven.”
In her wondrous life, Murtha had confronted the system on behalf of all those it harmed, making visible the workers who were exploited and discarded wholesale. In 1983, she finally broke through with a poignant portrait of the Soho sex industry in London By Night at The Photographers’ Gallery.
Soon thereafter Ella Murtha was born, a blessing that would transform Murtha’s life while also forced to bear the burden of single motherhood. In the film, Ella expresses a deep feeling of responsibility for her existence laden with pain that is not her burden to bear.
But like Murtha, Ella is a fighter who now carries the torch, bringing her mother’s work forth in a series of monographs, exhibitions, and now TISH. The film concludes with Murtha’s work hanging at the Tate — a reminder to all those toiling in obscurity that the systems of power are not only exclusionary, they are egregiously late.
Despite the structural inequities that continue to plague the arts, TISH is a testament to what it means to do the work in and of itself. In a culture that prizes wealth and status over integrity and truth, the struggle passes from one generation to the next — with the hope that we all may have a woman like Ella in our midst.
TISH (Modern Films) is directed by Paul Sng and produced by Jen Corcoran.