Wasteland wanderer: how Tish Murtha captured the beating heart of Tyneside

One of Tish Murtha’s first photography assignments, after she enrolled at Newport College of Art in 1976, was to shoot people at work. Befriending a man called Wilf who, like her father, was a scrap man, she went on to take magical photographs at the rubbish dump, where he was often to be found. Some of her images show a fantastical figure in a mouse mask. Another captures a girl with her head in a skip, scavenging for lost treasure.

“It was very much what she knew,” says Ella Murtha, Tish’s daughter. “My granda and uncles would go down to the dump and find gems. That’s how they were brought up – to be creative and never waste anything. She took that mentality into her photography. There were treasures to be found everywhere, and what other people might not have found important, everyday moments of life, was important to her.”

This sensibility runs through Murtha’s work, and it extends to people as well as moments. It’s there in Youth Unemployment, which was shot in 1981 in Elswick, a deprived area of Newcastle. The adolescents she photographed were facing mass unemployment or dead-end manual jobs but in her images they’re resolutely alive, fending off boredom by hanging out, playing cards, jumping out of windows. In one shot, a woman sits regally on an upturned chair, flames flickering behind her in the wasteland. Murtha laughingly called it Saturday Night on the Dole.

The same sensibility runs through Elswick Kids and Juvenile Jazz Bands, which show children in the same area. Though neglected by wider society, these youngsters are fiercely resourceful, making playgrounds out of burnt cars or marching-band props out of cast-offs. It’s also there in Murtha’s less-known work, in the DIY costumes made for the Queen’s silver jubilee in Newport in 1977. It may have been a deprived area, but the kids were crowned kings for a day.

And it’s there in Murtha’s images of London By Night, shot in 1983 on commission for the Photographers’ Gallery. By then living in London and friends with many of the women she photographed, Murtha portrayed individuals involved in sex work but not defined by it. “She wanted to make people from marginalised communities feel like their lives mattered,” says Ella. “These people were not to be hidden away – their lives were as valid as anyone else’s, their opinions were as important as anyone else’s. It was never voyeuristic. These people were in her circle. Documentary photography from the inside was less common, but that was her thing.”

Murtha was born the third of 10 children in South Shields and had an extremely difficult childhood which included a spell in care. After her parents got the kids back they moved to Elswick and the tough streets Murtha shot – the people she photographed were family and friends, the overwhelming 1970s wallpaper seen in some of her images adorned the walls of her parents’ council house. Murtha left school at 16 but got into photography through a friend, who lent her an old camera, and got herself to Newcastle’s College of Art and Technology.

Her tutors quickly recognised her talent. One, Mick Henry, wrote to Newcastle Education Authority to plead for a grant for Newport. In Murtha’s interview with the course founder, Magnum’s David Hurn, she said she wanted “to learn to take photographs of policemen kicking kids”. He immediately said she was in. Later, he signed as guarantor so she could buy an Olympus OM-1 camera, paying it off in instalments by working in a nightclub. “She used that camera until the day she died,” says Ella.

It’s a trajectory that’s hard to imagine now, with tuition fees running into the thousands, and that’s something Ella wants to explore in a new documentary, Tish, which she’s making with Paul Sng, director of Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché and Dispossession. The producer is Jen Corcoran, of Teesside-based Freya Films, and the cinematographer, Hollie Galloway, lives in Middlesbrough. The local connections feel right, says Ella. They plan to release the documentary next year.

Tish will trace the arc of Murtha’s life and work, and include her words and photographs plus interviews with her friends. But it will also include Ella because, born in 1984, she’s a big part of the story. Murtha had found it hard to negotiate London’s predominantly middle-class, male photography industry; doing so as a single mother proved impossible. Within a couple of years, she’d moved back to north-east England.

“She started a new series, Elswick Revisited, looking at changes in the area,” says Ella. “How it had become more multicultural, with right-wing tensions creeping in. But she was having to fit it in around me, pulling all-nighters to print her work. With no support, life slowly became about survival.”

Murtha kept on taking photographs but was unable to make a big project. Then, in the early 2000s, she was refused funding for a series on Middlesbrough, her home at the time. It was a heavy blow. “She had always held on to this belief that when I left home, that would be her time,” says Ella. “That just didn’t happen. When she got that knock-back, I think she thought, ‘What’s the point?’ The Tish in later years was very different to the young, bolshie Tish. The fight had gone.”

When recognition for her earlier work did come, it was too late. Murtha’s photographs were included in the exhibition Unpopular Culture: Grayson Perry Selects from the Arts Council Collection, 2008-2010, for example, but she couldn’t afford to travel to the opening. She died suddenly on 13 March 2013, the day before turning 57. Ella inherited an archive of “thousands and thousands” of negatives, which includes intriguing-sounding work on a women’s prison and later experiments in colour. Ella has made it her mission to get it seen and in the last few years, Murtha’s images have been shown at venues such as The Photographers’ Gallery in London and Willy Brandt Haus in Berlin.

The film is part of the effort, though Ella says she’s making it on behalf of both Murtha and “any other working-class artist who thinks they can’t do it”. She and Sng are crowdfunding to help finance it, just as Ella has done for three books of Murtha’s work, Youth Unemployment, Elswick Kids and Juvenile Jazz Bands – partly out of necessity, but also because it’s empowering. “It’s people power,” she says. “You don’t have to wait for permission. If you want to make something, you just bloody well do it.”

The crowdfunding site for the film on Tish is here. See more images at the Tish Murtha archive.

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