Proper recognition came too late for Tyneside-born photographer Tish Murtha, who died at 56 in 2013. As she was dying after suffering a brain aneurysm, her adult daughter Ella was on the phone to a UK government agency trying to persuade them not to sanction her mother for failing to show for a job centre appointment. It’s unmistakeable I, Daniel Blake territory, made even worse by the thought that an exceptional talent was being stifled by poverty and an unforgiving state.
But that tragic note is only the postscript of this warm, conversational doc. Ella takes a tour of her late mother’s siblings and friends to discuss Murtha’s life and remarkable social-realist photo work – the latter of which takes centre stage on screen for us to discover or rediscover, like many have since Murtha’s death.
It’s a remarkable and just posthumous revival of the artist’s work
Work and life blurred for Murtha: she documented subjects close to her own experience, starting off photographing tough street kids like her brothers, two of whom appear as talking heads in the film. Murtha’s obvious talent led her to study photography in Wales and intermittent projects and commissions followed, especially during an especially fruitful period in the early and mid-1980s that coincided with the worst of Thatcher-era unemployment and discontent. But Murtha rarely made money from her work, and she spent her later years back in the North East, struggling to find support to continue working as a photographer.
There is no footage or audio recordings of Murtha in director Paul Sng’s moving tribute doc. None exists. But Murtha’s political engagement and anger come across clearly through Maxine Peake’s readings of her writing, much of it accompanying notes to her work. It’s all part of a remarkable and just posthumous revival of Murtha’s work. Murtha’s powerful, embedded photos of Newcastle streets, Newport pubs and Soho strip joints now hang in the Tate and deserve to be known and admired for a long time to come.
In UK cinemas Nov 17.