A documentary that reframes the perception of the “working-class experience”, Tish is the story of Tyneside documentary photographer, Tish Murtha. Directed by Paul Sng, and featuring Tish’s daughter, Ella, this haunting documentary charts the span of the photographer’s life.
Tish is screening at Plymouth Arts Cinema from Saturday 20th – Wednesday 24th January. On Saturday 20th January, Emma Booth from Fotonow will give an introduction to the film and talk about Fotonow’s socially engaged approach to photography. Book tickets here.
Fotonow will also run a guided photography walk exploring Plymouth in the afternoon. Click here for more details and to book your space.
Be part of the Document Your Community photography project and send your photos to the British Culture Archive. More information here.
The film starts with background. It was a tough start for Tish and her siblings, as they grew up in extreme poverty in 1970’s Newcastle. With encouragement from their mum, who played classical music in the house, the Murtha children learned quickly that ‘culture’ was not solely for middle-class consumption. This nurtured artistic ambitions in Tish, who showed early promise and took up photography. Leaning into the documentary genre from the start, Tish’s response to poverty was to record it: abandoned houses and burnt-out cars became the setting for her photos.
Psychologically astute, Tish’s work was not just cataloguing the immediate conditions around her, but an examination of how collective history is told. The deprivation Tish captured: lives wasted, talent squandered; speaks not just of a moment in time, but also an irrefutable truth: history favours the fortunate. Murtha’s photographs, full of personality, rail against the generational invisibility of working-class people. Steered closely by Ella, the film makes extensive use of Tish’s own words from diaries and letters. She writes about “giving people a value”. Providing the voice of Tish, Maxine Peake conveys a warmth and familiarity – Tish’s passion emerges as a rousing, vital force.
Tish’s work was unapologetically political, and her daughter 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 decisions made hundreds of miles away in Westminster. 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. 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”. Murtha’s trusty Olympus camera bore witness to a lost generation.
In curating her mother’s legacy for the documentary, 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. Her black and white photographs of children playing are timeless images: their imagination transforms the bleak landscape around them: a discarded mattress becomes a trampoline, a burnt-out car is now a climbing frame. These are unguarded, boisterous depictions of childhood. Not all working class experience had to be focused on poverty and decline: Tish’s fresh, nuanced take gave her photographs an authenticity, a direct challenge to the middle class fetishisation of poverty. Running counter to how the working classes were portrayed in mainstream media, Tish didn’t see victims, she saw potential.
The best documentaries provoke the viewer to explore the subject long after the credits have rolled. In this project both Paul Sng’s unobtrusive direction and Ella Murtha’s heroic revival of her mother’s reputation have resulted in a renewed interest in Tish, establishing her as a key figure in British documentary photography. Named one of The Guardian’s Best 50 Films of 2023, Tish rewrites the ending of Murtha’s story. The coda, where Ella visits Tish’s work – now part of Tate Britain’s permanent collection – is an intensely moving, full-circle moment. There is, here, a sense of everything coming together at the right time. Tish’s photography gives dignity and presence to a class often misunderstood and maligned by those with no first-hand experience of living that life. Where political forces seek to divide, Tish’s photography illustrate commonality. A beautifully constructed film of a photographer now finding their light, Tish is an unforgettable portrait of a true artist.
Reviewed by Helen Tope