Director: Paul Sng
Framed within the rise and fall of its subject, Tish tells the story of Tyneside photographer, Tish Murtha. Directed by Paul Sng, and steered by Tish’s daughter, Ella, this haunting documentary charts Tish’s life, growing up in extreme poverty in 1970’s Newcastle. Her talent for photography started early: abandoned houses and burnt-out cars became the backdrop for her photos, representing the lives of working class people.
Psychologically astute, Tish’s work was a response not only to the immediate conditions around her, but a wider acknowledgement of how collective history is told. The deprivation Tish captured speaks of a moment in time, but also an irrefutable truth: history favours the fortunate. Murtha’s photographs railed against the invisibility of working-class people. The film makes extensive use of Tish’s own words, she writes about “giving people a value”. Voiceovers from Maxine Peake convey a warmth and familiarity – Tish’s voice emerges as a rousing, vital force.
Tish’s work is essentially class warfare: Ella’s interviews with her family detail the effects of stringent and punitive policies enacted on the unemployed: both Conservative and Labour (their ‘New Deal’) come in for serious criticism. Tish lays bare the real-life impact of political decisions. The lack of opportunity – even an Elswick postcode on your job application could scupper your chances – is brought into sharp relief. In her projects, Tish worked on building a narrative, rather than individual moments. Her documenting of factory closures is an in-depth commentary on the effects of mass unemployment. The YTS scheme hurried in by a Thatcherite government is noted by Tish as “vandalism on a grand scale”. Tish’s trusty Olympus camera witnessed a lost generation.
In curating her mother’s legacy, Ella is careful to show the full range of Tish’s work. While she was photographing the “tough end of working class life”, Tish also made sure that the fun, exuberant side of growing up working class featured prominently in her work. Her black and white photographs of children playing are timeless images: richly detailed, joyous observations of childhood. Not all working class experience had to be focused on poverty and decline: Tish’s nuanced take gave her photographs an authenticity, a direct challenge to the middle class fetishisation of poverty. Tish didn’t see victims, she saw potential.
The documentary’s bittersweet tone fails to offer the standard resolution of talent rising, meteorically, to the top. Circumstances played against Tish: from the industry’s lack of interest in documentary photography at the start of her career; to living hand-to-mouth at the end of her life. One of the film’s most poignant moments is Peake reading out Tish’s CV. She lists her hobbies: photography is, notably, last.
Tish is an unforgettable portrait of a true artist. Ella Murtha’s heroic revival of her mother’s reputation is undeniably moving. The coda, where Ella visits Tish’s work – now in Tate Britain’s permanent collection – is a full-circle moment. The photographs that challenge what we think of as the ‘working class experience’ are in their rightful place: at the centre of the debate.
Tish is released in cinemas from 17 November 2023.