Features / Photography

“A gift and a strong social conscience”: Ella Murtha on her mother’s astoundingly truthful photography


Lucy Bourton


Tish Murtha

Truthful, emotive and highly personal, the work of photographer Tish Murtha captured the social landscape of 1980s northern England with astounding honesty. Born in South Shields, a coastal town near Newcastle Upon Tyne, Tish was the third of ten children. Her family later moved to the west end of the city, and the photographer left school at the age of 16, hopping from job to job “from selling hotdogs to working in a petrol station next to St James park,” her daughter Ella Murtha tells It’s Nice That.

Then, a shift happened, and Tish began an evening photography course at Newcastle College of Art. Both her idiosyncratic eye and attitude was quickly noticed by David Hurn, a Magnum photographer who enrolled her on Newport College of Art’s documentary photography course – a course that is now revered the world over, but at the time was in its first steps.

“I can give you an example of Tish Murtha, who was a wonderful photographer from the North," David says, remembering when he interviewed Tish for her place at university. "I asked her what she wanted to photograph and she said: ‘I want to take pictures of policemen kicking children,’ and I said, ‘You’re in’. It was the shortest interview I had ever done because I knew exactly what she meant and I knew she was going to be a social photographer.”


Tish Murtha: Youth Unemployment

Post university, Tish returned to Newcastle and began her work at home. “My mam genuinely cared about the people she documented…She wanted to try and help in the only way she could, with her camera,” says her daughter Ella. This inclination to not just highlight but to help is most obvious in Youth Unemployment, an exhibition of her work in 1981, which was even included as a subject of debate in the House of Commons the same year.

“Unemployment in general has always been a hard feature of life in the west end of Newcastle,” Ella explains when discussing her mother’s work. “The area was built up in the 19th century on the basis of heavy engineering and ship building, an industry once at the very centre of the economy, and had been contending with the accumulated effects of industrial decline for a long time, but the problem of youth unemployment was very new and the problems associated with it were manifesting in a new way.”


Tish Murtha: Youth Unemployment


Tish Murtha: Youth Unemployment

Tish’s ability to photograph the true consequences of employment’s decline stems from its personal impact on the photographer, documenting “what it meant to the local unemployed youth and what the situation was doing to them,” says Ella. “She knew them all well; they were her family, friends, neighbours. Her pictures portrayed what she saw as the dereliction of young lives among the dereliction of an area with more than double the city’s unemployment rate as a whole. The images record the misery-go-round of debilitating boredom and the youngsters’ attempts to alleviate it.”

Youth Unemployment is personal to Ella in a myriad of ways. It was a wish of Tish’s to have the photographs published in a book of their own, but sadly she died of brain aneurysm four years ago, “before her dream of a book could be realised”. Ella has taken this dream into her own hands, launching a Kickstarter to publish the photographs via Bluecoat Press earlier this year. The campaign reached £19,005, £11,000 over its initial target. “There was so much interest online and the general consensus was that people couldn’t understand why it hadn’t already been published.”

The photographs also feature members of Ella’s own family, adding yet another personal tangent. “In the photograph of the kids jumping out of the window, which is the cover image of the book, it’s my uncle Glenn jumping and my uncle Mark holding the Mr Parlanchin ventriloquist doll,” Ella explains. “My mam’s favourite image was Cops Piss Off, and that has my uncle Carl in it. Even my Nanna appears in one where she is nagging Carl in the kitchen.”


Tish Murtha: Youth Unemployment


Tish Murtha: Youth Unemployment


Tish Murtha: Youth Unemployment

“The images record the misery-go-round of debilitating boredom and the youngsters’ attempts to alleviate it.”

Ella Murtha

Despite the intimate association of Tish’s images, her photography in this series and many others never feels closed off from the wider social problems at hand. “She felt she had an obligation to the people and problems within her local environment, and that documentary photography could highlight and challenge the social disadvantages that she herself had suffered,” Ella explains. “She didn’t get the level of intimacy and humanity in her images by being an opportunist, she found she had a gift and a strong social conscience. I think as a young woman she really thought she could help change things, make people take notice and stimulate discussions on real issues through her photography.”

In this sense, Tish used photography as a weapon of justice in her passion for politics, but also in everyday life: “I remember one particular day, we were going to town and were followed by a very creepy glue sniffer,” Ella recalls. “He followed us for ages, and when we stopped to sit on a bench to try and get rid of him, he also sat on the next bench, with an old man who looked like a cross between Captain Birdseye and Father Christmas. I was quite scared by this point, but my mam just calmly lifted her camera and took a photo of them, then we left and he didn’t follow. That night she took me into the spare room which doubled as her darkroom, and we developed that picture together. It was like magic seeing the image of the two men on the bench appear out of nowhere. I can’t have been more than five years old, but I never forgot it.”


Tish Murtha: Youth Unemployment

Ella speaks with a palpable love for her mother’s work and personality, in a way that makes you feel she was a warm-hearted and solicitous friend you wish you’d met. “Growing up with my mam was certainly unusual, as a single parent she was everything to me. She always had her camera round her neck, it was like a part of her. She gave me an old camera of hers and I would wear it round my neck when we went out together, so I could be just like her.”

Tish Murtha’s tangibility with her photography continued during the process of printing, as Ella mentions. “I would wake up regularly to the smell of chemicals because she had been up all night, printing while I slept, and amazing black and white images hung from makeshift washing lines all over the house. If I ever get even a faint whiff of fix now it takes me right back to those mornings.”


Tish Murtha: Youth Unemployment

At the heart of Tish’s photography is always people. Despite its firm Newcastle ties, when looking at her images they could be anywhere suffering from social poverty and unemployment issues. “My mam loved to photograph people. She was very interested in them, and would talk to anyone. She was fearless but also incredibly sensitive,” explains Ella. “Her work depended on an investment of time, building relationships of trust that allowed her access to different parts of the community and to individual lives. Her approach was informal, generating an understanding of what she was doing by giving prints to the people she photographed.”

In this current uncertain period of time that feels neverending, Tish’s photographs from 40-plus years ago have resonance now as much as they did during the eighties. This is because. more than style, “they display the truth,” says Ella. “She believed photography was an important form of visual communication that captured accurate records of the world we live in, rather than an artist’s interpretation of reality.”

In each of Tish’s photographs from Youth Unemployment the emotion switches from one to another. Quite rightly there are fed up teenagers, boredom shown in a slumped posture while sitting, but also laughter that evokes the community, boys chatting to old ladies on a bench, laughing with friends in an underpass or bugging the older kids of the neighbourhood. The mix of sentiment Tish’s lens produced displays a hope in the midst of hopelessness. This type of belief is why her photographs are held so dearly, by her daughter, by the city of Newcastle, and those looking at them for the first time all these years later.


Tish Murtha: Youth Unemployment


Tish Murtha: Youth Unemployment


Tish Murtha: Youth Unemployment