Home Arts a film about forgotten photographer Tish Murtha to open Sheffield DocFest

a film about forgotten photographer Tish Murtha to open Sheffield DocFest

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A film about the life of British documentary photographer Patricia ‘Tish’ Murtha is due to open the Sheffield DocFest film festival on June 14.

The film, titled Tish and directed by Paul Sng, is a celebration of “a working-class artist whose work was tragically overlooked during her lifetime,” Annabel Grundy, chief executive of Sheffield DocFest, said in a statement.

Murtha died suddenly at her home in Middlesbrough in 2013. But today the photographs she created throughout her life are recognized as some of the most important of her generation.

But Murtha’s living conditions worked against her, conspiring that she never received the recognition her work deserved. She was forced to ‘live like a stranger’, says Sng The arts journal.

“At the time, the arts were dominated by middle-class people, as they still are today,” says Sng. “Tish didn’t choose to be an unknown artist, but she wasn’t supported by gatekeepers in the photography world.”

Those gatekeepers missed a single performer, says Sng.

© Tish Murtha, Courtesy Ella Murtha

“She had a feminine gaze and she portrayed women as having free will,” Sng explains. “You haven’t seen that in the work of some of his male peers.”

Murtha was born in 1956, one of ten siblings, in the northern coastal town of South Shields. His family then moved to Elswick, a deprived area of ​​Newcastle. Murtha was taken care of during her childhood. Her early photographs testify to the kind of poverty she had to overcome.

Her career began in 1976, when she took a short evening course in photography at Bath Lane College of Art in Newcastle at the age of 20. His teacher, Mick Henry, convinced Murtha to apply for the documentary photography course in Newport, Wales, run by Magnum Photographer David Hurn. It was, at the time, the only recognized full-time photography course in the UK. Murtha couldn’t afford it, so Henry managed to get a grant from the local council to support his studies.

In Wales, Hurn helped Murtha hone his prodigal talent – his first unified series, Newport pub, included footage taken from inside Newport’s smoke-filled liquors, the result of hours and hours of close observation and careful engagement. Hurn became a mentor; he agreed to be Murtha’s guarantor so that she could buy an Olympus OM-1 camera on credit. She paid for the camera in installments while working in a nightclub. Almost all of his work was created with him.

© Tish Murtha, Courtesy Ella Murtha

After graduating, Murtha briefly returned to Newcastle. There she created the two bodies of work for which she is perhaps best known today. Children of Elswicka documentary series of children playing in the streets where she grew up, was itself an implicit mediation of her own childhood.Youth unemploymentmeanwhile, was an explicitly political series about the generation of people she says were denied the chance to earn a living under Margaret Thatcher’s government.

Although not exhibited at the time, the work led to Murtha being employed as a community photographer by Side Gallery, the Newcastle photography gallery which opened in 1968 and closed this month in due to a lack of funding.

In the early 1980s, Murtha decided to move to London, perhaps realizing that she needed to connect with the established photography industry if she was to make image making a career. There she began collaborating with the aging master Bill Brandt, himself a student of Man Ray and considered one of the most revered photographers of the century. Together, Brandt and Murtha worked on London by night– a portrait-based series commissioned by The Photography’s Gallery in Soho that explores, with rare empathy, the experiences of women working in sex work on the surrounding streets.

The series was made possible by Murtha’s friendship with Karen Leslie, a Canadian who worked as a dancer at a club in Soho. The couple lived together in a flat in Russell Square and, thanks to Leslie, Murtha was able to meet women who worked in the Soho sex industry, many of whom became her friends.

“Tish’s approach was collaborative; she worked with people, not just on them,” Sng says. “In London by night, she avoided a voyeuristic lens by gaining the trust of the people she photographed.

The series was acclaimed, no doubt in part because Brandt’s name was attached to it. He died less than a year later, in 1983. Murtha, for a brief period, was considered an heir apparent; the next new voice of British documentary photography. Although, throughout this time, she often admitted that she had trouble navigating the photography scene; cold, insular and political.

© Tish Murtha, Courtesy Ella Murtha

“Tish was a working-class woman, so she didn’t have the same opportunities as some of her contemporaries,” says Sng. “She ran into systemic barriers, but she also had a stubborn streak. She refused to compromise her principles and values ​​to succeed.

A little after London by night, Murtha became pregnant, giving birth to Ella in 1984. With no financial cushion behind her and facing an art world unresponsive to the demands motherhood places on working photographers, Murtha saw her opportunities dwindle. She tried to make London work, doing commercial photography mainly for Edward Arnold Publishers. But the tragic death of his friend Karen Leslie, victim of a hit-and-run while riding a bicycle in the streets of London, closes the chapter and, in 1987, Murtha decides to return with Ella to the North East. .

Murtha died on March 13, 2013, the day before she turned 57, from a brain aneurysm. She died having never published a photo book during her lifetime, although her work had only been exhibited a few times. His work has never been so recognized as London by nightwhich she had created at the age of 27.

Ella, Tish Murtha’s daughter

Photo: Tish Murtha courtesy of Shef DocFest/Paul Sng

Her daughter Ella, who was 17 at the time of her mother’s death, had to put her affairs in order. Sorting through her possessions, Ella realized that she was now in possession of thousands of negatives and photographs, many of which had never been seen or organized.

The film shown at DocFest testifies to Ella’s determination to establish her mother’s legacy in the British documentary canon. Ella and Paul Sng raised money for the film via a crowdfunding platform, earning over £45,000 from over 850 small donations.

The film will speak to many young people who yearn for artists but worry about their future prospects, Sng says. “Funding opportunities are becoming increasingly rare. People from privileged backgrounds face far from the same challenges as working-class people, who are usually unable to tap into bank savings or borrow money from parents to get on. . This is a widespread concern in the arts.

In life, Murtha felt rejected by photography. But, a decade after his death, it is clear that his photography still has the ability to speak to generation after generation of working-class artists.

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