How a New Documentary is Paying Tribute to Trailblazing Photographer Tish Murtha
A moving tribute to social documentary photographer Tish Murtha has launched in the form of a new documentary, simply called TISH
Tish was the third of 10 children. Born in South Shields, the family later moved to Elswick in the West End of Newcastle. ‘She left school at 16 and had a variety of different jobs, from selling hotdogs to working in a petrol station next to St James’ Park,’ says Ella. ‘You can learn a lot about the photographer by looking at their pictures, and I think that’s especially true with my mam. She knew how to compose an image, but she started to hone her skills long before she ever picked up a camera. There was always an undercurrent of danger in her world, from being a tiny child she had to learn to read a situation and know when the mood was going to turn.
‘When she found an old camera in a derelict house as a teenager, it became her protection and a tool for change. Her friends encouraged her to enrol on a photography course at Newcastle College and her tutor there encouraged her to apply to the newly set up Documentary Photography course at The Newport College of Art, South Wales, under the guidance of Magnum [Photos] member David Hurn. When she returned to Elswick, she began documenting her community.’
Tish became driven to expose societal inequality in the area, and her black and white photographs reflect both the struggles and resilience of the people in the community. ‘She had a strong social conscience, and was very passionate about politics which went hand-in-hand with her photography,’ Ella explains. ‘My mam’s photos from the North East are a portrait of a part of the country suffering from a chronic lack of investment and attention. Her work was very political, and although she was really angry with the situation, her photos are beautiful and tender; she loved these people and wanted the world to see what was happening to them.
Certainly her mother’s daughter, Tish and Ella were a team. ‘I grew up with her pictures as our wallpaper and was often in the darkroom with her as a child,’ Ella recalls. ‘She would explain what she was doing, letting me help, and it felt so magical watching these black and white images that we had made together appear. She was in her element in the darkroom, listening to her favourite music; she really loved the whole process, and I'm so happy that I got to share that with her. I know how important her work was to her, which is why I feel compelled to continue sharing it.
‘My mam was incredible. Determined, kind, funny and fierce, but also extremely sensitive. She had to learn to be tough from a very young age; she was very disciplined and would always stand up to bullies, but she was just happy as long as I was happy, and she had her music and her camera.’
Ella can't choose her favourite of Tish’s photographs. ‘It changes all the time for me, depending on my mood, but the ones with my family in are very special to me,’ she says. ‘The cover image from [Tish’s book] Youth Unemployment has three of my uncles in it, and we discuss it in the film. Uncle Mark was entertaining the kids with one of his discovered treasures, a ventriloquist dummy, when all of a sudden there was a load of commotion and all the kids ran over the road to watch my uncle Glenn jump out of the window onto a pile of mattresses. My mam was there to capture it, and strangely, the dummy was the only one who seemed to notice her.’
Ella admires filmmaker Paul Sng’s work, and had known him for a few years when he asked her (during the first Covid lockdown) about working together to make a documentary about Tish. ‘He understood it was very sensitive for me, and it would need to be honest and honour her work and political views,’ she says. ‘Then we met our wonderful producer Jen Corcoran and just clicked – we all wanted the same thing, and we set to work building a little team of like-minded people to achieve our goal. As we had no funding, we started a kickstarter campaign to help us get straight out on the road to meet the people who knew Tish while we still had the chance. The pandemic really showed us how important time is, and we didn't waste a moment. Sadly, we lost three contributors during the production who will never have the chance to see the results, which is very bittersweet.
‘The film is a tribute to courage, love, and the transformative power of art. We wanted it to feel intimate, like her work, so that people could learn who Tish really was. It focuses on her as a mother, a sister, and a friend. What she stood for and why she took the pictures that she did, so that she and those stories wouldn't be forgotten.’
Tish’s story is told via a series of intimate conversations conducted by Ella. Through the memories of Tish’s friends and family, the film traces the key works and moments of her life and career, brought to life via diary entries and letters, narrated by Maxine Peake and accompanied by photographs. The film also delves into her time in London, where she was commissioned by The Photographers’ Gallery to explore the lives of sex workers in Soho, resulting in her series London by Night (1983). Her last major venture was the documentation of central Middlesbrough before the Middlehaven regeneration project. ‘I hope people from similar backgrounds feel seen, recognise their own lives and histories within the images, and connect with TISH on a deep emotional level,’ says Ella. ‘Having Maxine Peake read my mam’s words is a dream come true. I hope it stays with people long after the credits have stopped rolling.’
Although Tish’s work is now critically acclaimed, it was overlooked during her lifetime. This new film is allowing Ella a chance to preserve her mum’s legacy and to tell the story of a remarkable Northern photographer. ‘I don't remember her ever earning money from her work, but she always had her camera with her,’ Ella recalls. ‘Photography was in her DNA, but she died penniless, too afraid to turn the heating on. I found her on Mother's Day wearing a woolly hat inside the flat in the middle of having her brain aneurysm, and she was so cold the paramedics thought she had hypothermia. It broke my heart that that was what her life was reduced to, which is why I took her boxes of treasures and made sure the world knew how talented she was – so her life wasn't just a waste, and those stories she captured so lovingly would be remembered. I'm keeping her legacy of love, respect, and hope going by working with people I know and trust to celebrate her work in an authentic way that also maintains her integrity. I want to honour her as a woman, an activist, and photographer.’
TISH was released in the UK and Ireland by Modern Films on 17th November.