A People’s Photography

Tish Murtha’s camera captured working-class life in the rusting North East of the late twentieth century

Elswick Kids, 1978 (© Ella Murtha, All rights reserved. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers’ Gallery)

Three lads lie on the concrete floor, backs against the wall, laughing at an idle joke. On the brick wall behind them someone, possibly one of them, has scrawled a message in chalk: ‘COPS PISS OFF’. In another photo, one lad teeters on a window ledge on the first floor of a derelict council flat. His mate has already jumped, a broad grin as he heads for the mattresses piled up below him. A crowd of kids watch.

‘Only boring people get bored,’ my mum used to say, and in Tish Murtha’s photographs of working-class youth in 1970s Newcastle, there are plenty of shots of kids making their own entertainment from necessity. There’s a whole bunch forming their own military units with an ad-hoc selection of cap guns and wooden sticks, or jumping up and down on burnt-out cars, or just sitting around, because there’s fuck-all else to do. That was a preoccupation of Murtha’s, whose work is currently the subject of a retrospective at The Photographers’ Gallery in London. Born and raised in Elswick, a working-class area hit hard by the collapse of shipbuilding in Tyne and Wear and the closure of the yard at Elswick Works, Murtha took a number of series of photographs of life in the North East during the late seventies, eighties, and nineties, many of which focused on young people struggling to get by in an era of high unemployment and few opportunities.

Her first series Elswick Kids (1978) was produced the year Murtha graduated from the University of Wales in Newport. Alongside her photography the show features a display of ephemera from her life, including a note from her course leader acknowledging her enrolment, in order that she could obtain store credit to buy her first camera. It’s clear that Murtha’s experiences growing up in the deprivation of the area were what drove her to pursue her form of social realism, documenting the community from the inside. Many of her photos feature friends and neighbours, and the works themselves, despite the poverty they show, carry a lightness, showing life as it is rather than an overworked attempt to show the desperation behind the grit and soot.

Murtha’s work puts the realism into social realism, and that is what makes it so powerful. From photography’s earliest days photographers and journalists like Jacob Riis and August Sander saw representation as key to social transformation, drawing attention to poverty and social injustice and putting pressure on political institutions to change things. The US government recognised that power of representation during the Great Depression. New Deal agencies such as the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and the Resettlement Administration used photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans to record the devastating effects of the economic crash on rural communities, otherwise out of sight to urban Americans, building an argument for state intervention to help alleviate the worst sufferings of farm workers — ‘introducing America to Americans,’ in the words of the FSA’s Roy Stryker.

The work of Tish Murtha embodies many of those same aims, though unlike the New Deal photographers she often found herself facing down the ideology of both the state and the labour movement. When her works were presented to Parliament in 1981 as evidence of the inner-city ‘youth problem’, she wrote a statement to accompany them. Erudite and angry, it points the finger not just at Thatcherite free-market economics but at a wider generational malaise, with trade union complacency in the face of a changing society.

‘What is becoming clear to the generation now approaching maturity is that our society has no solutions for their problems, can give no direction to their lives. Unemployment and all its associated deprivations are not only getting worse, but new technologies threaten to make the situation permanent,’ she wrote. ‘No established channels exist to represent or even acknowledge the interests of those involved, and the failure of political parties and even the trade unions to contribute anything other than platitudes to the situation increases the alienation of youth still further.’

Murtha died in 2013, but although conditions have changed considerably since her early series, there’s still something pertinent in her way of working. Unlike a lot of documentary photography of people living in poverty, Murtha didn’t sensationalise her subjects as helpless waifs. Instead she represented people who find no other representation of themselves in society and the media.

The role of photography has been revolutionised through smartphones and social media, but the nature of the new media tends towards presenting an idealised self. Perhaps what is lacking today is the frank and empathetic eye of an artist like Murtha, who refused to allow viewers to claim they couldn’t see how poverty affects British cities, or how allowing it to continue is a political choice.