Community stories in Industrial England

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Tish Murtha’s relentless vision can be characterized by a single trait: empathy. She unflinchingly investigated forsaken communities crippled by ineffective government policies and bleak living conditions.

Despite her notable output — powered by an active home darkroom — her work went underrecognized throughout her life and after her sudden death in 2013. Last year, her daughter Ella spearheaded an online campaign to publish a limited-edition book based on Murtha’s series “Youth Unemployment.” She is now having her first retrospective, “Tish Murtha: Works 1976-1991,” on view at The Photographers’ Gallery in London through October 14.

Gordon MacDonald, the exhibit’s co-curator, deemed Ella the “driving force behind the rediscovery of her work and archive” This was, Mr. MacDonald said, “a very direct and plausible argument to explain this historic lack of visibility for Tish, and many other female artists and photographers.”

Born in 1956, Murtha grew up poor in a family of 10 children in an industrial area of England near Newcastle. It mainly offered a treacherous future in mines or munitions factories, and even those professions were plagued by mass layoffs. Poverty was so dire that it resembled turn-of-the-century living conditions rather than England on the cusp of the millennium. The revelation of these alarming circumstances yielded some action: Her 1978 “Elswick Kids” series led Murtha to a government-funded position as a community photographer in Newcastle, and in 1981, her work was directly addressed in the House of Commons. While her photos reveal Thatcher-era Britain, Mr. MacDonald compares them to contemporary scenes of legislative failures and rising social inequality. “Remarkably and disturbingly, the work has a real resonance with the effects of current political decision making and of sustained austerity,” he said. “Poor people suffer for the economic failure of governments, and to support the rich.” Class, he added, is “another way of describing economic and cultural control.”

Despite that sense of purposelessness, her work tenderly celebrates resilience. The value of companionship and the cushion of a strong local community is evident, be it in the embrace in a 1976 photo entitled “Angela and Starky,” or the sweet gaze shared between two children in a photo from the 1978 “Elswick Kids” series.




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