Tish Murtha at The Photographers’ Gallery

Circumstances dictate 50/60 minutes of slowly walking back and forth, standing, staring, is about all I can manage right now, which means I’ll be back at The Photographers’ Gallery more than once before it’s recently opened brace of shows closes on October 14th.

On the second floor is a cross-section of the work of Tish Murtha, a too-little-known (until now) and under-represented member of that group of British documentary realist photographers of the 70s & 80s who saw their function as being to show the rancid decay of working class life and community under a Conservative government. Men laid off. Heavy industry in decline. Mass youth unemployment.

Murtha grew up, one of ten children, on a housing estate in the Elswick area of Newcastle, got herself to college, got a camera, got a place on David Hurn’s Documentary Photography course at Newport College of Art in South Wales. Newport – Newcastle : in many ways not so very different. “I want to learn to take photographs of policemen kicking kids,” she allegedly said at her interview.

Looking at the work – kids, mainly kids – youths in unemployed abundance – I was reminded of something I’d quoted in my last piece on this blog about another artist from the north-east, the poet Barry MacSweeney …

After Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government was elected in 1979, MacSweeney’s work became more vicious and despairingly political.

Except that, political as it clearly is, and some pictures do depict a moribund sense of despair, there is little or nothing that I would describe as vicious in Murtha’s depictions of the places and people she knew and whose backgrounds she had shared. What I see is understanding, compassion – two-shots showing love, togetherness, fortitude – a young girl, perhaps eight or nine years old, staring back at the camera as if asking what can my life be, can I be like you?

David Hurn suggests an affinity with the work and ambition of the American photographer, Lewis Hine …

I wanted to show the things that had to be corrected. I wanted to show the things that had to be appreciated.

Tish Murtha does both.

Tish Murtha: Works 1976-1991 was curated by Val Williams and Gordon MacDonald, with Karen McQuaid, and with the co-operation of the Tish Murtha Archive, which her daughter, Ella, has managed since Tish’s death in 2013. It is showing, together with Alex Pregar: Silver Lake Drive, at The Photographers’ Gallery, London W1F7LW until October 14th, 2018. 

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