Tish Murtha: Works 1976 – 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)

Newport

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.

'Karen with Punters at the Sunset Strip Club’ from the series ‘London by Night’ (1983) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers' Gallery

‘Karen with Punters at the Sunset Strip Club’ from the series ‘London by Night’ (1983) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers’ Gallery

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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