Tish: a tender portrait of British documentary photographer Tish Murtha

The late Tyneside photographer Tish Murtha dedicated her craft to depicting marginalised northern communities, but she struggled to sustain her career in post-Thatcherite Britain. As in his last film Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché (2021), Paul Sng’s intimate documentary resurrects a fleeting art radical, honouring her incisive political views as well as her photographs.

17 November 2023

By Nick Bradshaw

Tish Murtha portrait 1983 by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha, all rights reserved
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed from Sheffield DocFest 2023

Paul Sng’s portrait of the late Tyneside documentary photographer Tish Murtha – who earned brief acclaim for her insider depictions of deindustrial edge-of-town deprivation in the early 1980s – mourns three layers of loss. There is Murtha herself, who died of a brain aneurysm a day short of 57 in 2013, having succumbed to the same poverty and hopelessness she had made her subject. There are all the photos she never took – the spurned promise of a talent that never quite soared. And there is the waste of the countless other scrap lives depicted in and denoted by her photos of northern Britain’s sacrificial working class, the family and neighbours around her Elswick community for whom she felt both easy empathy and fired passion.

Like Sng’s previous resurrection of a fleeting art radical, Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché (2021), Tish reclaims its heroine’s story through the eyes of her grown daughter; indeed, Ella Murtha’s broader project of curating her mother’s legacy provides the film’s form, with Ella gathering memories from a series of Tish’s old family, friends, tutors and peers, often at an outdoor table or with a pint. This ad hoc listening tour initially feels a little lumpen, but Tish’s younger sister Eileen, and three of her brothers – frequent subjects of her photos, now etched with a lifetime’s toil – bring character and intimacy.

Murtha herself remains an elusive presence, freeze-framed in the past – there’s no movie footage of her. But insert enactments of domestic downtime with a model against beige backdrops, face unseen, evoke a sense of inner life and the trappings of the time. And Murtha’s diaries, read by Maxine Peake, capture her lucid, determined voice almost as powerfully as her photos.

“I want to photograph a policeman kicking kids,” she told her prospective university tutor David Horn – the shortest winning interview pitch ever, he chuckles. She conceptualised her work with similar incision. Murtha’s conviction “that the fundamental value of the medium is its capacity to provide direct, accurate and vital records of the conditions, events and experience that shape our lives” is an indelible credo. When, midway through, the film quotes Murtha at length castigating the “spectre of enforced idleness” and “squandering of a whole generation of human potential”, “vandalism on a grand scale” from which “barbaric and reactionary forces in our society will not be slow to make political capital”, her perception clearly stretches beyond the early-1980s moment.

Years later, Murtha was similarly eloquent in a funding pitch for a project on Middlesbrough’s maligned multicultural community, which she hoped would “validate lives [and] empower them to challenge decision-making processes that all too often reject their views”, as well as regenerate interest in her own career. Her application, the film tersely notes, was rejected by the Arts Council of England. 

 ► Tish is in UK cinemas 17 November.

Originally published: 17 November 2023

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