Important Photography Lessons We Can Learn From 'Tish'

Important Photography Lessons We Can Learn From 'Tish'

There is an incredible documentary about one of my photographic heroes, Tish Murtha. Tish was a documentary photographer who grew up in the abject poverty of England’s Northeast. There are important lessons we can all learn from her work.

During the 1980s, the Northeast of England, where I live now, suffered immeasurably from the damage caused by Thatcherite economics. Those policies destroyed the local industries. The then Prime Minister’s claim that "there was no such thing as society" was reflected in how entire communities were left impoverished by the government's failure to replace those struggling industries with meaningful employment. Similar experiences were felt worldwide in the countries that embraced neoliberalism, where all that mattered was profit.

Yet, as is sometimes the case, a photographer arose from the ashes of ruination who could create powerful images from that socioeconomic disaster.

Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha, all rights reserved.

As a young woman, Tish’s skills with a camera were recognized by her photography tutor who encouraged her to study further. Subsequently, she won a scholarship to attend the University of Wales, Newport, famed for its photography courses.

She photographed the people around her with brutal honesty. Her images regularly highlighted the damage economic policies did to local communities. The impact of her photography was made even more powerful by her belonging to that environment and not being “parachuted in,” a criticism aimed at other documentary photographers who seem to look down their noses at the working classes.

The obvious comparison to Tish's work is Martin Parr’s study, "The Last Resort," shot around the same time. Great though I think his photos are, Parr’s work is often criticized as looking down on a working-class world alien to him. Some say his photos lack the compassion and intimacy that Tish Murtha’s photographs display. I disagree and see Parr's photos as valid observations from his viewpoint. However, Tish’s images go further, displaying a deep care for those trapped in poverty that can only be portrayed honestly by someone who is part of that world. They shout out that something’s wrong with the world and cry to us to fix it.

Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha, all rights reserved.

One of the most striking things about Tish's work was her eye for composition. In documentary photography especially, this is challenging to get right, especially when multiple people are in a frame. The layout of her photos is perfect, which shows that she could place herself in the right place and anticipate the action. Her photos are not posed but are a record of what was happening around her. Moreover, I would argue that her ability to capture the decisive moment outshone Cartier-Bresson, who coined the phrase.

Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha, all rights reserved.

I think there are several lessons that we can learn from her story.

Firstly, it is incredibly difficult for photographic artists to earn a living. It’s different if a photographer mass-produces images for clients, such as a wedding, product, or school portrait photography. However, photographers like Tish who produce documentary photography of everyday life, no matter how powerful and historically important those images, usually cannot rely on commercial success alone. I know several fabulous professional artists and photographers for whom the main source of income is a second job that subsidizes their photography.

This is even more true for women photographers. Inequality and prejudice based on gender as well as race and religion are still profuse in our industry around the world. Gladly, here in the UK and many other countries, we can see an upsurge in the number of excellent women photographers. Nevertheless, there is still an imbalance and a long way to go before parity is achieved. That's partly because those with obtuse attitudes toward equality still stand in the way.

Secondly, outside the area of sausage-machine photography, the purse strings are held by relatively few people in the art world. Grant processes are highly competitive, applications are often needlessly complex, thus inaccessible to many. Furthermore, funding decisions sometimes seem arbitrary. Because the finances are held by what is sometimes considered an elite class, grants may be denied to those who have no personal relationship with those who hold the money.

As is the case with many areas of photography and life, success is not solely achieved by merit but because of a self-perpetuating condition that continuously rewards and engages those already at the top. The same applies to gear; people buy the most popular brand for no other reason than it is fashionable to do so. Similarly, although there should be plenty of room at the top, a degree of gatekeeping ensures little possibility of talented photographers ascending to those top rungs.

Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha, all rights reserved.

The third lesson is that the most powerful images are often the ones that convey difficult messages. When you look at the works of Tish Murtha, Dorothea Lange, Robert Capa, and Don McCullin, they hit home because of their humanity and genuine sympathy for the hardships being experienced by the subjects.

Some genres, such as documentary photography, are more powerful than others. Of course, the emotions evoked by hard-hitting photos are not the only valid feelings we get from photographs. However, one cannot usually expect to feel the same anger, passion, sympathy, fear, or sadness you would when seeing images of human suffering when viewing a picture of a flower, a bird on a stick, or a lamb frolicking in a field.

Fourthly, photos have real power. It’s useful to remember that photography can be used not just to raise awareness but to bring about social change. Tish’s work and the poverty she recorded were even discussed in the British Parliament.

On a brighter note, the fifth and final thing we can learn from Tish’s story is that our best photos come from the familiarity of our environments. Tish was part of that world. Because she belonged to it, she was accepted by the people she photographed and could portray their lives with brutal honesty and compassion. Similarly, the best photos we can take happen because we are very familiar with the environment in which we live and the subject we shoot. We instinctively know how the light will fall, how the subjects will behave, and where we should place our camera. No matter where you live, there is always something you can learn to photograph better than anyone else.

Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha, all rights reserved.

Tragically, Tish Murtha died relatively young in 2013, aged just 56 years. At the end of her life, she struggled to make a living. It's ironic that she was unemployed, not receiving any grants for the projects she wanted to undertake, and unable to pay her bills. She applied for menial retail jobs that she didn’t get because she lacked experience in areas other than her photography. It seems our society failed her, and was consequently denied more photographs from an enormous talent.

I strongly recommend you look at the Tish Murtha website and more images stored on the British Culture Archive.  For those photographers who have access to the BBC iPlayer, the documentary, Tish, can be seen here. It is both uplifting and heartbreaking.

I thank Tish’s daughter, Ella, for allowing me to use the photos to illustrate this article.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Earning a living as a photographer, website developer, and writer and Based in the North East of England, much of Ivor's work is training others; helping people become better photographers. He has a special interest in supporting people with their mental well-being through photography. In 2023 he became a brand ambassador for the OM System

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Thanks for this Ivor - I grew up in the impoverished north of England during the Thatcherite purges of working class communities and I think this is a balanced and throughful overview of Ms. Murtha's incredible work and the milieu in which it was produced. Though I do not have access to iPlayer I shall ceertainly be seeking out the documentary.

Thank you for this article. Tish indeed surpasses Cartier-Bresson in capturing the "decisive moment". Her moments simply have more weight; his appear somewhat aloof in comparison.

Thanks Ivor for this article. Another example of an artist with tremendous talent that didn’t get recognised. It makes me sad that there’s so much talent out there that doesn’t get an opportunity to shine. It often frustrates me that in the music business there’s also so many extremely talented musicians that can’t earn a living while there are less talented acts that are hyped and overproduced that make millions.

Thanks for sharing this Ivor, I have never watched this documentary. Will give it a watch tonight.

Thanks Ivor for the article re. Tish Murtha. Shamefully I only became aware of her work through the BBC documentary. Shamefully because I live on Tyneside and have never come across the photographs. Hope your article and the documentary introduce Tish's work to a wider section of the population both locally and nationally.

If you find interest in the work of Tish you should check out the images of the North East taken by Chris Killip, and around the same period.

In a similar vein Chris captured the lives of a working-class public, integrating himself in communities in order to gain their trust. What strikes me about Chris' work is his documentation of the vanishing industry and community that struck the region at that time.

I recently wrote a quick personal perspective including a link to a video interview with Chris on my website blog in anyone would like to discover more -

Chris captured the streets I played as a child, the lost industry I cut my teeth on, leading to a stark realization that if we don't document the banality of today, that history will be lost to our future generations.