A girl with dirty knees jumps on the boot of a derelict car, her arms flung above her head like a bird in flight. Her surroundings bear the hallmarks of urban deprivation: debris covers the ground, graffiti is scrawled across the walls in the background a dingy tower block looms. But in this moment, she transcends all that; she is suspended in the realm of her own imagination, her shoes hovering inches above the battered metal.
In many of the photographs in ‘Tish Murtha: Works 1976–1991’ kids are seen making their own fun as the world around them literally crumbles, and even burns. Tish Murtha’s black and white images of Elswick, in the West End of Newcastle, during the 1970s and ’80s document a turning point in the area’s history: the shipbuilding industry had collapsed, Thatcher’s free market policies were taking devastating effect, youth unemployment was rising. Murtha’s images capture a sense of time passing at once too slowly and too quickly. Several of the young people we see in her photographs are lost in daydreams, while their chances for work and a decent future are sliding away.
For Murtha, their plight was personal. The photographer and her nine siblings grew up in a council house in Elswick. In 1976, when she was 20 years old, she won a place on the influential documentary photography course at Newport College of Art, south Wales, run by Magnum photographer David Hurn. According to Hurn, when he asked her what she wanted to study, she answered, ‘I want to learn to take photographs of policemen kicking kids.’
In Newport – a part of Britain also suffering from the decline of industry and the welfare state – Murtha honed her craft. ‘Newport Pub’ (1976–78) is one of the six series that are included in the exhibition; at this early point in her career, her empathetic, political eye is already in evidence. In Angela & Starky, an older couple embrace warmly, Angela with cigarette in hand, Starky with a beaten-up Heinz box under his arm. The shot is intimate: humanity emphasized above poverty.
When she returned to Newcastle, Murtha was placed on the Youth Opportunities Programme – a scheme she railed against bitterly in a 1980 essay on display in the show. ‘Behind the empty, pathetic talk of increased leisure opportunities and freedom from repetitive labour,’ she wrote, “stands […] the squandering of a whole generation of human potential.’ While on the programme, Murtha created ‘Elswick Kids’ (1978), ‘Juvenile Jazz Bands’ (1979) and ‘Youth Unemployment’ (1981). Children roam backstreets in little gangs and troupes; teenagers mooch on corners. Many of them were friends and relatives of Murtha’s – and you can see the affection in their returned gazes. In a later series, ‘Elswick Revisited’ (1987–91), Murtha focused on cultural diversity and the rise of racism, recalling the chilling final paragraph of her 1980 essay, in which she warns that, ‘there are barbaric and reactionary forces in our society, who […] will not be slow to make political capital from an embittered youth.’
The story of the documentary photography movement in Britain has tended to be male-dominated, which makes this exhibition – based on the archive Murtha’s daughter Ella has carefully preserved – all the more crucial. Murtha’s distinct, female perspective is clear in the photographs taken for the Photographers’ Gallery’s 1983 group show ‘London by Night’, for which she collaborated with the dancer and stripper Karen Leslie.
Sadly, Murtha died just before her 57th birthday, in 2013. We can only guess what she would have had to say about the way society treats young people now – at a point where youth services have been slashed year-on-year since 2010. We need her kind of compassion and conviction more than ever.
Tish Murtha: Works 1976-1991 is on view at The Photographers' Gallery, London, until 14 October.
Main image: Tish Murtha, Elswick Kids (detail), 1978. Courtesy: © Ella Murtha and The Photographers' Gallery, London