PERHAPS the story that best tells you who Tish Murtha was is the one about her interview for a place on the documentary photography course at Newport College of Art in Wales in the mid-1970s. When the course founder David Hurn asked her what she wanted to photograph, Murtha replied simply: “To learn to take photographs of policemen kicking kids.”

For Murtha, the camera was a weapon. Born in 1956, the third of 10 children growing up in poverty in the north-east of England, she captured the lives of those she grew up amongst; the generation of working-class kids chucked on the scrapheap by deindustrialisation.

Her black-and-white photographs were a report from the frontline of the dog days of the 1970s and the scorched earth impact of Thatcherism. A vision of brokenness, damage and defiance.

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“You can’t really separate her from her politics,” film director Paul Sng believes. “It’s odd, though, because there is that sense that the work doesn’t feel angry. There is a tenderness to it.”

That duality – the ferocity and the empathy to be found in Murtha’s images of people and places – is what Sng has set out to capture in his new film, Tish. A portrait of a young working-class artist whose photographs have only begun to be properly appreciated since her death in 2013, Sng’s film tells the story of an outsider artist, you might say.

The Herald: Karen On Overturned Chair, Youth Unemployment (1981)Karen On Overturned Chair, Youth Unemployment (1981) (Image: Ella Murtha)

But that raises the question: outside of what? Because Tish Murtha was embedded in the culture she captured in her photographs.

She knew this world because it was the one she lived in. Her subjects were the families she grew up around. Sometimes – often – they were her own family, as Sng came to realise when he started taking an interest in her work back in 2016.

“I saw a picture online of kids jumping out of a window onto mattresses. I didn’t know it at the time but three of Tish’s brothers are in that picture. Her brother Glenn is the one jumping. Her brother Carl is the one behind him and the boy holding the ventriloquist’s dummy is her brother Mark.

“And just looking at the photo reminded me of my childhood. I didn’t grow up in Newcastle. I grew up in New Cross. But at the time there were derelict buildings in New Cross, which is unthinkable now. You could go into these houses and explore them.

The Herald: SuperMac, Elswick Kids (1978)SuperMac, Elswick Kids (1978) (Image: Ella Murtha)

“Seeing Tish’s work, seeing how she documented that and her political intent really drew me in.”

Sng, who is at home in Portobello when we speak, has previous when it comes to making films about working-class female artists.

His last film, Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliche saw him collaborate with Celeste Bell, the daughter of the titular punk icon and front woman of X-Ray Spex. This time around he has worked with Murtha’s daughter Ella to draw out the human story behind the photographs.

It’s a story of hard-won self-belief and a talent that never got the chance to breathe as much as it should have. Then again, that it shone at all was an indication of her eye and her steely will. Tish Murtha’s childhood was lived under the shadow of poverty and an abusive father.

“I remember one thing Ella said,” Sng recalls of the photographer’s relationship with her father. “Tish refused to cry. She would not give him the satisfaction. From talking to Ella I know that her mother had scars on her back. She was very tough.”

That toughness was applied to her art as well as her life. “She had unswerving principles,” Sng points out. That was not always welcomed by the arts bodies she sought support from.

“She was never going to roll over and tell them what they wanted to hear and be docile. She was always very fierce and if she didn’t like something she was always going to let people know.”

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But that outspokenness had consequences. It often led her into conflict with institutions which were in a position to give her work. In this world Murtha was the outsider.

“People labelled her difficult,” Sng says.

“But she was just principled. If she had been from an upper-class family and a guy, everyone would have said she was mercurial. Or that she was a maverick. But because she was a working-class woman from a council estate she was labelled ‘troublesome’, ‘difficult’.”

Still, Murtha initially roared out of the blocks after Newport College, most notably with her project Youth Unemployment, photographs taken between 1979 and 1981 in Elswick in Newcastle’s west end, the area where she had been raised. The power of her images saw them mentioned in the House of Commons.

Her previous projects, Elswick Kids and Juvenile Jazz Bands, images taken at the end of the 1970s, meanwhile, offer another vision of working-class life; a make-do-and-mend dreaminess that speaks to the durability of childhood in deprived circumstances. Her photographs recorded existences lived out on the street; a panorama of dirty faces and everyday joy.

The Herald: Kids Jumping On To Mattresses - Youth Unemployment (1981)Kids Jumping On To Mattresses - Youth Unemployment (1981) (Image: Ella Murtha)

By 1983 Murtha had moved to London where she immersed herself in Soho nightlife, taking pictures of the sex workers and punters that filled the area.

For Sng the continuity between Murtha’s photographs of Newcastle and London is a simple one: empathy.

“She’s the insider,” Sng says of the London images.

“She was friends with some of the women. She was friends with the people on the scene in Soho. She would have known the bouncers. She would have known the strippers.”

And as a result, the photographs Murtha gets are close-up and personal.

“She’s invisible in the way she takes pictures,” Sng suggests. “She reminds me of Diane Arbus in a way. A completely different photographer, but both have the ability to be an outsider on the inside.”

The Soho photographs were commissioned by The Photographer’s Gallery in London. Murtha’s work was beginning to be recognised. But by then she was a single mother and that took over. She eventually took her daughter Ella back to Elswick.

Murtha never stopped taking photographs, however.

“For as long as I can remember my mam always had her camera around her neck,” her daughter Ella has noted. “It went everywhere with her, like it was a part of her.”

But people were less and less interested in what she did with it and increasingly Murtha struggled to get backing for her work.

In the early 2000s a proposed project about Middlesbrough where she was living was refused funding by the Arts Council and in her later years she was signing on.

Talent needs a support structure. Murtha didn’t have one. She died of a brain aneurysm the day before her 57th birthday, her work overlooked, almost forgotten. She was effectively a lost artist. But over the last decade her daughter Ella has been fighting to have her recognised as the artist she was. The result is a resurrection of her mother’s art.

In 2018 The Photographer’s Gallery staged a major retrospective. And Murtha’s photographs have now been acquired by Tate Britain.

The film is another recognition of her burning talent. Like her photographs, Tish is a fierce and tender thing. Sng has done his subject justice here.

And maybe that’s because the story speaks to him too. In Tish, Murtha’s daughter Ella talks of how she feels responsible for holding her mother back. Sng carries a similar weight himself.

“My mum brought me up on her own and I felt a level of responsibility that she didn’t go on to do more in life because she looked after me. And so I think as a director you always have to find a personal connection to a film, something in it that is yours and yours alone to relate to.”

You could say that bringing up a child is a good way to spend your life too, of course. “Completely. It is a full-time job for 16 years. Possibly more,” Sng agrees.

And in the end maybe Murtha’s greatest legacy is Ella herself. As Poly Styrene’s is her daughter Celeste, Sng adds.

“The fact that these two very strong women who guard their mothers’ legacies like lionesses and have been instrumental in continuing those legacies and in Ella’s case establishing it, is a great achievement and a credit to how their parents brought them up and nurtured them and instilled in them a similar empathy about the world that they had.”

His next film is going to be about the Scottish post-punk guitarist John McGeoch, best known for his work with Magazine and Siouxsie and the Banshees.

He is making it with his friend Nicola Black and McGeoch’s daughter Emily. They are currently seeking funding via Kickstarter.

“It feels like an unofficial trilogy of daughter films about outsider artists who maybe didn’t receive their due on a grand scale as they should have.”

The fear is that such artists would find it even harder now.

Would any present-day Tish Murtha even be able to afford to go to college?

“What is lost when people don’t tell their own stories?” asks Sng. “How can we document this stuff if the people who are living it can’t afford to do that?”

Tish Murtha told her own story. And we are finally paying attention to it.

TISH is in cinemas now. Visit To contribute to the Kickstarter campaign for John McGeoch: The Light Pours Out of Me visit