This is a huge, vast, awe-inspiring, ginormous exhibition, full of riches and surprises and fun. The Saatchi Gallery is housed in a grand and spacious building just off the King’s Road. It has three floors of exhibition space (ground, 1st and second floors), some of its rooms are huge, plus little side-rooms, nooks and crannies, corridors and the stairwells you go up to move between floors.

Every inch of this space, all the rooms and all the walls are covered with wild and vivid examples of the exhibitions subject, for this is a huge, comprehensive exhibition of Street Art and Graffiti. Wow, is it big! Wow, is there a lot, a huge amount, to take in! It aims to be the most comprehensive exhibition of graffiti and street art ever held in the UK and surely it is.

The Cosmic Cavern by Kenny Scharf – a dayglo party installation, inspired by the night-clubs and discos of the 1980s in BEYOND THE STREETS LONDON at the Saatchi Gallery

To give a quick sense of the scale, here’s a list of some of the participating artists:

10Foot, AIKO, Alicia McCarthy, André Saraiva, BÄST, Beastie Boys, Beezer, Bert Krak, BLADE, BLONDIE, Bob Gruen, Brassaï, Broken Fingaz, C. R. Stecyk III, CES, Charlie Ahearn, Chaz Bojórquez, Chris FREEDOM Pape, Christopher Stead, Conor Harrington, CORNBREAD, Craig Costello, CRASH, DABSMYLA, Dash Snow, DAZE, DELTA, DONDI, Duncan Weston, Dr. REVOLT, Eric HAZE, Escif, Estevan Oriol, Fab 5 Freddy, FAILE, Felipe Pantone, FUME, FUTURA2000, Glen E. Friedman, GOLDIE, Gordon Matta-Clark, Gregory Rick, Guerrilla Girls, Gus Coral, Henry Chalfant, HuskMitNavn, IMON BOY, Jaimie D’Cruz, Jamie Reid, Janette Beckman, Jason REVOK, Jenny Holzer, Joe Conzo, John Ahearn & Rigoberto Torres, José Parlá, KATSU, KAWS, KC ORTIZ, Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, KING MOB, LADY PINK, Lawrence Watson, Lisa Kahane, Malcolm McLaren, Maripol, Martin Jones, Martha Cooper, Maya Hayuk, Michael Holman, Michael Lawrence, Mister CARTOON, MODE 2, Ozzie Juarez, Pablo Allison, Pat Phillips, Paul Insect, POSE, PRIDE, PRIEST, Richard Colman, RISK, Robert 3D Del Naja, Roger Perry, Shepard Fairey, SHOE, Sophie Bramly, STASH, Stephen ESPO Powers, Stickymonger, SWOON, TAKI 183, Toby Mott, TOX, Tim Conlon, Timothy Curtis, Tish Murtha, Todd James, VHILS , ZEPHYR.

Site-specific mural by selected group of participating artists in BEYOND THE STREETS LONDON at the Saatchi Gallery

Room after room is packed with paintings, artefacts, sculptures, installations. There are standard gallery rooms with paintings hanging discreetly on the wall but there’s also some vivid installations, namely a mock-up of a 1980s record shop whose walls are plastered with old posters, complete with racks holding real LPs you can browse through.

Interior of Trash records, including interactive record player, t-shirts, skateboards, and a multitude of youth culture ephemera in BEYOND THE STREETS LONDON at the Saatchi Gallery

There’s a life-sized shop full of colourful clutter and bric-a-brac. There’s a corridor lined with black and red graffiti, which is illuminated in pinky-red light, giving you a full visual experience as you walk through it. One of the best bits is a room covered with dense black-and-white patterns giving you pleasantly zig-zaggy optical illusions, in the middle of which are some stands with squiggly over-coloured zoomorphic swirl sculptures. All pleasantly weird and wonderful and disorientating. Some toddlers in it at the same time as me loved it.

Into the New Realm with Felipe Pantone: installation in BEYOND THE STREETS LONDON at the Saatchi Gallery

There are 13 rooms in all and each one is given a theme, within which what seem like floods of artists are explained and displayed.

The exhibition sets out to give a historical account of the genesis and development of modern graffiti sometime in the 1960s and from then on twines the development of graffiti in basically two places, London and America, specifically Los Angeles.

Accompanying the explanation of the development of street art was a lot about contemporary music, which also came in two essential flavours. First of all there’s what I thought was a surprising amount about English punk, with several walls made up of fabulously retro old posters for scores of punk bands.

There’s a lot about the Clash who in 1980 left sleepy London town for America where they entered into all kinds of collaborations with US hip-hop and rap bands. The show includes FUTURA2000’s legendary 30-foot-long painting, made on stage with The Clash during a performance.

There’s a passage devoted to Don Letts, film director, disc jockey and musician, collaborator with the Clash among many other groups. To my surprise a whole section is devoted to bad boy impresario, Malcolm McLaren. There’s a series of photos depicting the mutations of his shop on the Kings Road, Sex, which morphed into Seditionaries and several other incarnations, and then to his post-punk attempts to stay ahead of the trend by moving to America and exploiting the new sound of hip-hop.

Wall-sized photo of Malcolm McLaren and the arted-up boogie box he’s carrying in a display case in BEYOND THE STREETS LONDON at the Saatchi Gallery

And then of course, there is hip-hop itself, with several galleries devoted to massive photos of key bands such as Public Enemy, NWA and many more rappers and DJs with colourful confrontational soubriquets, juxtaposed with the graffiti and street artists who inspired or were inspired by them.

Classic photo of Public Enemy by Glen E. Friedman in BEYOND THE STREETS LONDON at the Saatchi Gallery

I found the jumping between black American culture in the 1980s and essentially white punk culture from the late 1970s quite confusing, but in a fun, disorientating kind of way. London, punk, tower blocks and concrete subways, the Clash, Mrs Thatcher and so on, I immediately get, relate to and remember. Life in some American ghetto, bling and baseball caps, and the complex social legacy of the civil rights movement or Black Power, a lot less so. In fact, not really at all.

I guess there are two ways to approach such a funfair, such a festival of art, such an overwhelm-ment of paintings, installations, set-ups and so on: one is to read the sensible wall labels, which attempt to give a coherent account of the birth and growth of street art, and go slowly mad with the level of detail. The other is just to stroll around and react to the scores and scores of vivid, vibrant setups and displays. Here’s the cluttered shop of bric-a-brac I mentioned. What has it got to do with graffiti, what is it trying to do? To be honest, I don’t know, but I loved it.

Puppet Workshop ‘Rubbish Stuff’ by Paul Insect in BEYOND THE STREETS LONDON at the Saatchi Gallery

So far I’ve given the impression it’s mad and cluttered and busy, and some of the rooms or spaces definitely are. But others are the complete opposite, big traditional gallery spaces with sensible wood floors, white walls and all kinds of works hung on them.

Some are sets of paintings on wood (or concrete) because one of the things that comes over is that, among the 100+ artists on display, some began as street artists but have been going for 30 years or more and have evolved a more studied conventional practice. Hence a very conventional display which looks like this:

Installation view of BEYOND THE STREETS LONDON at the Saatchi Gallery

In other places, works have been sprayed directly onto the gallery walls by contemporary artists.

Wall art by Kenny Scharf, created specially for BEYOND THE STREETS LONDON at the Saatchi Gallery

Running the entire height of one of the big stairwells is what amounts to a dense wallpaper made up of hundreds and hundreds of photos of New York subways trains entirely covered with classic urban graffiti. There’s a room devoted to the work of Lawrence Watson (born 1963) who worked his way up through the New Musical Express and The Face, during which he was commissioned to do a photojournalism on the New York hip-hop school and took classic snaps of artists like Run-DMC, LL Cool J and Public Enemy.

Lawrence Watson installation featuring contact sheets and a performance video of one of the many hip-hop acts he photographed, at BEYOND THE STREETS LONDON at the Saatchi Gallery

There’s what you could call a busy but essentially orderly displays, such as this one of brightly coloured rectangles with catchy images or logos.

Site-specific poster installation LONDINIUM 2023 by C.R. Stecyk III in BEYOND THE STREETS LONDON at the Saatchi Gallery

Then there’s politics because young people are constantly rebelling, bless them, before they grow up, get married, get a mortgage and kids and vote for people like Boris Johnson or Dominic Raab.

I warmed to the rebel imagery of the English punk strand of things, and especially liked a huge long wall covered in posters for punk bands and gigs in the late 70s, mixed up with posters execrating Maggie Thatcher and weathered old copies of the magazine Class War, which I used to get when I was a student, mainly for the hilarious covers, like the satirical covers of Private Eye, only with added venom. Ah, the Miners Strike, the Battle of Orgreave, bombs in Northern Ireland, Exocets over the Falklands, those were the days, eh?

Part of the punk poster collage in BEYOND THE STREETS LONDON at the Saatchi Gallery

Some definitions

1. Graffiti

Graffiti is a name-based, usually illegal art work which can range from simple tag signatures to elaborate, multi-coloured designs.

Graffiti is probably as old as civilisation i.e. cities. We have graffiti from ancient Rome (displayed at the British Museum’s Nero exhibition). Modern-day graffiti arose in 1967 in New York and Philadelphia as a form based on repetition of the artist’s name or tag, embellished and stylised. Graffiti movements or communities arose round the increasingly popular. Generally, you gained respect the more daring and illegal your work.

Untitled by ZEPHYR, a venerable graffiti artist who’s been ‘working’ for over 50 years, in BEYOND THE STREETS LONDON at the Saatchi Gallery

2. Street art

Street art is usually illegal work that falls outside the scope of ‘graffiti’, for example, image-based posters, stickers, stencils and installations. In a modern art context, street art dates from as recently as 2000 when a critical mass of artists, many of them originally graffiti-ists, crystallised the practice and attracted attention from curators and art scholars.

3. Murals

Murals are large-scale wall art, whether legal or illegal.

Exhibition contents

Let me try to give a more structured overview of this huge, unwieldy phantasmagoria by, basically, copying the press release.

The curators’ stated aim is to zero in on exceptional moments in the history of street art. These include the emergence of punk, the birth of hip-hop (celebrating its 50th anniversary, happy birthday, chaps) and street culture’s growing influence in fashion and film.

What comes over just from that preliminary introduction is that the exhibition is nowhere near complete. These are just a tiny fraction of works from an art form or movement which was spontaneous, undisciplined and often ephemeral by its nature. It’s a tiny selection of what could arguably be seen as the only really global universal art form, found as much in urban centres in Latin America, Africa, Russia, China, the Far East, as on the mean streets of Brixton or Philadelphia.

‘Toy Alley.. after the Murder’ installation by PRIEST in BEYOND THE STREETS LONDON at the Saatchi Gallery

Anyway, the exhibition is divided into what the curators call ‘chapters’.

1. Vandal

First thing you see on entering the gallery is a graffiti-filled installation of what looks like a teenager’s bedroom, ‘The Vandal’s Bedroom’ by American artist Todd James, presumably to establish several themes: predominantly that this whole worldview is by and for youth, angry sullen teenagers and students or – in America more than England, I suspect – black kids from ghettos who felt outside all existing norms and social structures. The other theme being mess, it’s a mock-up of the bedroom of the messiest teenager in history, covered in posters and magazines and rubbish and sci-fi paperbacks but mostly festooned with scrawls and tags and ‘toons. Looked like my son’s bedroom on a good day.

Vandals Bedroom by Todd James in BEYOND THE STREETS LONDON at the Saatchi Gallery

2. Music and art converge

The socio-political turmoil of the late 1970s and 80s, where the decline of cities met artistic resistance, a shift which was felt in both the US and UK. Youth culture responded by painting graffiti on walls and public transport, creating art that reflected and reimagined the times in an explosion of expression on the streets. It was about identity in the face of oppression, self-awareness, and self-discovery in a moment of a depleted economic outlook.

3. Dream galleries

A selection of American and European originators, photo documentarians and cultural icons who helped contextualize and spread graffiti culture around the world. In André Saraiva’s Dream series, there is a visual articulation of how graffiti, street art, hip-hop, punk, fashion and break-dancing all sprung from the late 1970s and early 1980s into the 90s and today, and became a hybrid celebration of underground culture.

Featured artists also include Mister CARTOON, known for his tattooing and Los Angeles murals; a Beastie Boys installation featuring fashion and ephemera from the band’s prolific history; and LADY PINK’s feminist murals, illustrations and paintings.

Feminist mural by LADY PINK, an Ecuador-born artists who started painting New York subway trains aged 15, in BEYOND THE STREETS LONDON at the Saatchi Gallery

4. Legends

Hosts icons such as legendary NYC artist, Eric HAZE, a torch bearer for generations to come; a new large-scale painting by abstract expressionist artist José Parlá; advertisement posters by KAWS; and ephemera by Keith Haring, one of the most popular street artists of the 1980s.

5. Blockbusters

Works commissioned specifically for this exhibition by graffiti trailblazers Shepard Fairey, LA-based activist, and FAILE, a Brooklyn-based artistic duo taking over the streets of NYC since the late 90s.

6. Larger Than Life

A site-specific installation by LA-based icon Kenny Scharf, the largest version to date of his immersive and interactive installation Cosmic Cavern, consisting of Day-Glo paintings, ephemera, and reused materials found in the streets of LA (see first photo in this review). Also the signature puppet characters made from recycled materials by Paul Insect, one of London’s original street art pioneers.

7. Timeline

A deep dive into street culture history through archival photography, ephemera and fashion to examine the cross-pollination of influences across music, fashion and film. Includes a large wall vinyl by feminist collective Guerrilla Girls.

8. Art with conscience

Works by hip-hop pioneer Fab 5 Freddy.

9. Consideration into innovation

Lisbon-based artist, VHILS, who repurposes waste and found materials to reimagine city walls.

Doors by Portuguese artist VHILS , in BEYOND THE STREETS LONDON at the Saatchi Gallery

10. The Next Phase

The final ‘chapter’ is titled ‘The Next Phase’ and contains new op-art works by Valencia-based artist Felipe Pantone, whose high-contrast, geometric patterns challenge perspective, creating a distinctive digital age aesthetic.


It’s huge, and there’s loads of wall labels which are on two levels: high-level ones introducing each room and giving overviews of particular moments, themes and places (New York and London, but plenty of others); and then more specific labels zeroing in to give the biographies of the scores and scores of artists featured and descriptions of specific works. If you studied all of them you’d be here all day. It’s a feast of colour, creativity and information.

Rules and respect

The visitor handout includes 6 rules we visitors should comply with, for example ‘Respect the artworks’ and ‘Do not touch them’ etc. Rule 4 is ‘Do not sticker or tag the gallery’. Now I entirely understand why they say that – it is a very nice, clean gallery, staffed by nice, clean visitor assistants who are extremely helpful. Still – I couldn’t help finding it funny that an exhibition all about the wild, anarchic, street culture of the 70s and 80s is held in such an atmosphere of politeness and respect and silence, in beautifully maintained and utterly sterile white spaces.

Selection of works from the Afterlife Series by CRASH (2022) in BEYOND THE STREETS LONDON at the Saatchi Gallery

Where’s Basquiat?

I was surprised there was no mention of New York’s most famous graffiti artist, the devastatingly brilliant, cool and beautiful Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960 to 1988), subject of a brilliant exhibition at the Barbican.

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Tish Murtha: Works 1976 to 1991 @ the Photographers’ Gallery

This is an absolutely brilliant exhibition, full of fantastically acute, beautifully shot and desperately moving photos of urban poverty in the England of the 1970s and 80s.

Patricia ‘Tish’ Murtha, born in 1956, was surely a street and documentary photographer of genius. Look at these photos! As inspired, vivid and alive as her chaotic, unpredictable subjects.

Elswick Kids (1978) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha and The Photographers' Gallery

Elswick Kids (1978) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha and The Photographers’ Gallery

Works 1976 – 1991 is a major exhibition of Murtha’s work being held at the Photographers’ Gallery, a retrospective of an exceptionally talented photographer who sought out and recorded the social deprivation and instability of 1970s and 80s Britain through a series of blistering black and white photographs.

Using both vintage and contemporary prints, the exhibition reviews the six major bodies of work or projects which Murtha undertook during her working life, namely:

  • Newport Pub (1976/78)
  • Elswick Kids (1978)
  • Juvenile Jazz Bands (1979)
  • Youth Unemployment (1980)
  • London by Night (1983)
  • Elswick Revisited (1987 – 1991)


In 1976, aged 20, Tish Murtha left her native Newcastle-upon-Tyne to study at the influential School of Documentary Photography at Newport College of Art, in Wales, under the guidance of Magnum photographer David Hurn.

Hurn contributes memories of Tish to the exhibition catalogue. Apparently, he and a colleague interviewed candidates for the course not by looking at their portfolios but by asking why candidates wanted to train as photographers. Murtha gave the pithiest reply – ‘I want to learn to take photographs of policemen kicking kids’ – and was offered a place on the spot. It was the right-on 70s, man.

The earliest series in this show, Newport Pub, dates from this period, Murtha went to photograph the realities of everyday life for the regulars of a typical public house, the oddly named ‘The New Found Out’, in a characteristically deprived area of the town.

Newport - Ex Miner - New Found out pub (1977) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers' Gallery

Newport: An ex-miner in the New Found Out pub (1977) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers’ Gallery

Murtha felt an obligation to the deprived communities of her home in the North East, and had deliberately chosen a course of study which would make her a more effective photographer, one who could highlight the social disadvantages that she herself had suffered. This was to remain her lead motivation.

Elswick Kids

On returning to the North East, Murtha created a set of photos titled Elswick Kids, documenting the children playing on her local streets. Though not exhibited at the time, it led to her getting hired as a community photographer by the Side Gallery in Newcastle, as part of a government-funded scheme.

Even if there’s the suspicion that the sweet little things in this photo were posed or arranged, the kids running round in the background weren’t, and all of the Elswick Kids sequence, like all of the photos she ever took, are just stunningly composed, with an extraordinary gift for bringing out the humanity and life of kids and people, even in the most wretched and abject circumstances. Note the natural framing of the two rows of terraced houses out of focus but securing the composition. And just enough of the brick wall to give a base line and explain what the sweet little things are sitting on.

Elswick Kids (1978) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers' Gallery

Elswick Kids (1978) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers’ Gallery

For me her eye for composition, for the way she frames the subjects, her impeccable feel for the correct angle of attack and the beautiful lines and geometry latent in the world around her, are breathtaking.

Juvenile jazz bands

Murtha produced two bodies of work while on the scheme. One was Juvenile Jazz Bands which does what it says on the tin, documenting the children’s marching bands which were an important part of life in the North East.

Initially made with the backing of the band organisers, Murtha defied their expectations of glamorous images and instead produced a more critically-engaged imagery, focusing on the regimental drills and militaristic nature of the bands.

She was also drawn to the impromptu and unofficial Jazz Bands that sprung up, self-organised by the children who had been rejected from the official troupes, and Murtha paid them equal attention in the series.

The background of this photo reminds me of the crappy tea rooms in the shitty new town I grew up in. Plastic furniture, peeling paint over rotten wood. Streets lined with fag ends and chewing gum. Old dears with cheap hairdos shuffling along supported only by their worn out shopping trolleys.

The salient detail, what Roland Barthes called the punctum, ‘that accident which pricks, which bruises me’, the slight incident which brings the image alive, is the white shoe of the lady in the window. But there is much to savour in the way the marching baton has been caught at the moment it exactly parallels the rotting wooden lintel of the shop; the majorette’s left arms raised to create an angle between left and right arms. The stern look on her podgy face. And the extraordinary array of badges across her uniform.

Juvenile Jazz Bands (1979) Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers' Gallery

Juvenile Jazz Bands (1979) Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers’ Gallery

Youth Unemployment

Murtha’s interest in unemployed youth grew out of her own experiences and an earlier project she had created in Newcastle for the housing charity Shelter. In any case, it was all around her.

Shot in west Newcastle, Youth Unemployment combines dazzling images of poverty and boredom, a wonderfully alert sense of the subjects’ humanity, as well as her ever-present sense of architectural form i.e. her sense of the built environment as a stage set, her ability to line up the right actors against the right backdrops, backdrops which match the dereliction of place to the abandonment of people.

Murtha saw the dereliction of young lives up close and the people that populate her series were often friends, family and neighbours, living in an economy devastated by the closure of the North-East’s factories and mines.

Youth Unemployment (1981) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers' Gallery

Youth Unemployment (1981) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers’ Gallery

Youth Unemployment is Murtha’s most celebrated body of work. It even made it to the level of real working politics: on the 8th February 1981, Murtha’s work was raised as a subject for debate in the House of Commons.

The Guardian’s photography critic Sean O’Hagan wrote about it:

There is much grittiness and poverty on display here… and, everywhere you look, class rears its divisive head. Tish Murtha’s black-and-white portrait of a couple lounging on a bed, watched from an adjacent cot by their curious child, is a study in enervation . . . [it] was taken in 1980. It could, though, be 1930.

Could photos like this be taken in 2018?

London by night

After the Youth Unemployment exhibition in 1981, Murtha moved to London where she was commissioned by The Photographers’ Gallery to create a series on the sex industry in Soho for the group exhibition London by Night (1983).

Alas, sex. Favourite subject of newspaper and magazine editors, film-makers and curators everywhere.

Murtha gave her contribution a fillip by collaborating with one of the sex workers she met, Karen Leslie, who worked as a dancer and a stripper and supplied pithy, pungent texts for the final photographs, for example:

As far as most strippers and peep show dancers are concerned, audience is too elevated a term for the men who watch. They are punters and bloody wankers to boot.

The unavoidable glamour of professional photography

I found the text and photos a bit disjunctive, in the sense that while Leslie’s words are consistently jaded, cynical and disenchanted, Murtha’s photographs are cool and stylish.

Because, in my opinion, photographs – photographs of almost anything – are always glamorous. Not in a Vogue, 1930s glamour shoot kind of way. But ever since the 1930s there has been an ever-growing alternative definition of glamour, which (in the work of Weegee, for example) takes in gangsters and organised crime, speakeasies, dingy side alleys and so on. All those films noirs from the 1940s helped to invent the aesthetic of ‘the city by night’. The Naked City TV show from the 1950s shed a seedy-glamorous light on ‘the eight million stories in the naked city’. Raymond Chandler and a million other pulp fiction authors.

In Britain there had been a long tradition of gritty black and white photos of working class, with dingy back alleys and Hamburg strip joints featuring in the photos of Bill Brandt going back to the 1930s. The strip clubs of Soho had been attracting photographers for decades.

Anyway, my point is that city lowlife, especially nightclubs and the sex industry, had been lent a sort of glamour for decades before 1981. The subject matter is old. The new thing, the thing to savour, is Murtha’s brilliant talent for composition.

From the series ‘London by Night’ (1983) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers' Gallery

From the series ‘London by Night’ (1983) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers’ Gallery

Thus when the curators would have you believe that the image, below, together with Leslie’s text, ‘still stand as a powerful critique of the sex industry’, I think they’re wrong. I think they’re wrong to think there was anything very new or innovatory about commissioning a set of photos of Soho strip clubs. Seems like a very clichéd idea to me. And the selection of photos here don’t seem to me to provide much of ‘a powerful critique of the sex industry.’

Instead I found Murtha’s photos of Soho, of dark alleys, nightclub doorways, half dressed women hanging round under smashed streetlights, incredibly glamorous in a well-established, trashcan kind of way.

As evidence, look at this photo. Is it ‘a powerful critique of the sex industry’? I don’t think so. I think it is something far more interesting and powerful. Karen Leslie looks fantastic in this photo. Louche, wild, threatening, full of power, a feline animal, a woman-tiger about to pounce on the grubby men who’ve paid to see her tits and are now finding themselves uncomfortably intimidated and threatened by her naked presence.

I don’t think these photos are an ‘indictment’ of the sex industry – I think they’re a celebration of the power of the women who work in it. Like all Murtha’s other works, they celebrate the human spirit, the ability of imagination and humour to overcome even the most wretched, deprived and sordid of environments.

Elswick Revisited

The final series in the exhibition, Elswick Revisited, touches on racism and the impact of increasing cultural diversity in the area she knew so well i.e. Asian families were beginning to move in among the white working class, introducing new layers of disorientation, puzzlement, resentment and fear for all concerned.

These last photos capture the beginning of a transition from an entirely white working class culture to the contemporary multi-cultural society we all live in, with all its benefits and problems.

Admired by photography students, lionised by the Guardian

Although Murtha’s photos are obviously driven by a very strong social conscience and a desire to publicise the poverty she saw around her in order to get something done about it, they exist, nowadays, in up-market galleries and expensive art books. As soon as these scenes became photographs they exited the ‘real’ world and entered the domain of photography professionals, art, galleries and magazines (and blogs like this one).

In that respect Murtha’s pictures remind me of the fate of the brilliant photos of 1930s dustbowl farmers taken by Dorothea Lange. Taken with the obvious intention of publicising the chronic poverty of their subjects, the photos, or at least the original prints, have ended up becoming prized possessions in collections put together by people like multimillionaire glam rock musician Sir Elton John. His fabulous exhibition of vintage black and white photos was the basis of a massive exhibition at Tate Modern, The Radical Eye, two years ago.

Is that what Dorothea Lange would have intended for her work, for her conscience-searing images of rural poverty? To be hung on the living room walls of Britain’s most flamboyant and fabulous, multi-millionaire gay couple?

And so with Tish Murtha’s photographs. The curators think that:

Parallels to contemporary living conditions, austerity politics and growing social inequality, bring a timely urgency to viewing Murtha’s work

But do they? Will her photos change anything, will they help ameliorate ‘contemporary living conditions, austerity politics and growing social inequality’, will they do anything particularly urgent?

No. They will contribute to the aesthetic delight of the Photographers’ Gallery-going classes (including me, maybe you), and readers of the Guardian and other right-on publications, where they will no doubt be reviewed in tones of indignation and righteous anger, with an obligatory nod towards present-day issues like food banks and immigration.

Karen on overturned chair (1980) Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers' Gallery

Karen on an overturned chair (1980) Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers’ Gallery

Amid these voices, the photographs’ original motivation melts away. Their incorporation into contemporary matrices of art historical discourse – picked up and used as evidence for the culture of complaint and anger and victimisation we live amidst – will proceed effortlessly but also without result or effect.

But I think that Tish Murtha’s photographs, although they a) come from that particular time and impoverished place, and b) easily fit into contemporary discourse about austerity and inequality, although they encapsulate that era and empower that kind of discourse, also transcend them.

Because those claims to interpretation and meaning are built on the subject matter of the photos.

But I think her art – her eye and technique, her brilliant knack for composition and framing, her use of light and shadow, her ability to catch ordinary street people on the wing, the depth of field she creates so we are consistently drawn deep in in into the images – all of this bespeaks a critical talent which far outlives her time and place.

She was a photographer of genius.

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