Bluecoat Press: Elswick Kids, Kickstarter Campaign for Latest Book of Photographs by the Great British Documentary Photographer Tish Murtha

Tish Murtha, one of Magnum photojournalist David Hurn’s first students at the famous School of Documentary Photography in Newport, Wales, in the 1970s, was one of the finest documentary photographers of her generation but, in the all-too-usual manner, was ignored by the photography establishment until recently thanks to the tireless efforts of her daughter Ella Murtha, The Photographers’ Gallery, Bluecoat Press, Café Royal Books and others. 

Commentary

The course at The School of Documentary Photography was unique in Britain at the time and produced many fine photographers, a couple of whom later moved to Australia.

Others went on to fame and fortune, while Tish Murtha seemed to have disappeared into the background after initial early successes and commissions, dying prematurely in 2013.

Given the way female photographers have tended to be ignored and forgotten, it is wonderful to see that Tish Murtha is finally receiving the recognition that she deserved so much in her lifetime.

Photograph from “Elswick Kids’ by the late, great British documentary photographer Tish Murtha.

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The Joy of Documentary Photography

Documentary photography is, in my opinion, one of the noblest, most socially useful and most personally rewarding pursuits one can engage in with camera in hand.

Photograph by David Turn from ‘Wales 1970s’ published by Café Royal Books.

It is regrettable that fashion and the death of magazines that relied upon documentary photography and its subgenre photojournalism have conspired to assign the genre into the waste bin of history only to be revived and celebrates by the likes of Café Royal Books, but that should not put off contemporary would-be documentary photographers.

Documentary photography at its best frames a mirror before the events, people and places of its time and is even more important in an age where entertainment is preferred to information, fantasy is preferred to fact and religion is preferred to science.

Against this background, documentary photography is an act of resistance born of seeing the world and all within it with supreme clarity.

Even if documentary photography’s current lack of fashionability and respectability, sees the genre absent from galleries, away from museums, off the television and out of print, I encourage all who may be so inclined to take on its mantle and practise it each and every day, where you live, where you work and in the streets of your city, town and country.

Do so especially if you are one of those whom the gatekeepers reject, whose experiences and views of the world are traditionally denied and ignored.

Do so especially when the gatekeepers may appear to accept your right to exist and be a documentary photographer but dictate rules and regulations at you that are designed to keep you, your vision and your work under control, compliant and conforming.

Do so because your right to to be you, to see as you do, to depict as you do and to tell your stories in your own way is unassailable no matter what lies you are told and what power games and punishments are enacted against you.

Above all, documentary photography is fun, demanding as it does a deep and constant engagement with this world and all that is in it to the point where it is possible to enter a flow state, also known as being in the zone.

Documentary photography is, in my experience, the surest way to achieve flow state that I know, a gateway into sheer joy.

Ways and means of production

The hardware and software of digital photography have come a long way since it began replacing analog film-based photography to the point where most cameras, lenses and processing software will do the job well enough now.

While most of the wide range of the analog era’s cameras, lenses and types of films, processing and printing materials no longer exist, contemporary digital cameras offer analogies of some of those upon which documentary photographers once relied:

  • Rangefinder cameras in 120 rollfilm and 35mm formats.
  • Single lens reflexes aka SLR.
  • Twin lens reflexes aka TLR.
  • View cameras in field camera and studio versions.

The mirrorless cameras of the analog era and now the digital age offer the advantage of silent operation and the lack of mirror slap and shutter shake, especially when shooting in electronic shutter mode.

Without the ongoing punitive financial burden of film, processing, proofing, printing and archival storage, digital photography is more affordable than analog so consider future-proofing and capability-expanding yourself through wise investment.

Hybrid digital mirrorless cameras open up the world of documentary moviemaking in ways that never existed for analog just with a little extra expenditure on video production accessories.

With DSLR giants Canon and Nikon finally seeing the light and slowly coming up with viable soon-to-be-released mirrorless alternatives, and mirrorless pioneers Fujifilm, Olympus and Panasonic already well established with a wide range of mirrorless cameras and lenses at several price points, there has never been a better range of choices in equipment.

Hybrid mirrorless cameras open up the world of documentary moviemaking in ways that never existed during the analog era and, with a little extra expenditure on video accessories, allow you to create professional-quality productions.

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I will add to this section soon, so please come back again if it is useful.

Rangefinder and Rangefinder-Style Cameras

Fujifilm
  • Fujifilm MHG-XPRO2 Metal Hand Grip for X-Pro2B&H
  • Fujifilm X-Pro2 Mirrorless Digital CameraB&H
  • Fujifilm X-Pro2 Mirrorless Digital Camera with 23mm f/2 Lens (Graphite)B&H
  • Match Technical EP-XP2 Thumbs Up Grip for Fujifilm X-Pro2 (Black)B&H

The New York Times: This Working Class Photographer Documented Her Community in Industrial England [Article behind paywall though limited free reading is available.]

The great British documentary photographer Tish Murtha.
The late Tish Murtha, British documentary photographer. Photographs reproduced here under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 License.

“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” (Ella herself was blunt as to why her mother had been overlooked for so long: “Because she didn’t have a penis”). 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.”… “

Commentary

“Because she didn’t have a penis” is an apt comment from Tish Murtha’s daughter Ella Murtha explaining why her mother had been so overlooked as a great British documentary photographer for so long.

Yet Ms Murtha was not always overlooked, given her commission to photograph for the London by Night show by The Photographers’ Gallery in London, in 1983.

Three other great British photographers also worked on that show – Bill Brandt, Brian Griffin and Peter Marlow – all of whom were already widely acclaimed and successful documentary photographers or if not at the time of that show went on to be so shortly afterwards.

Except for Tish Murtha.

It is rewarding, then, to see that Tish Murtha is finally starting to receive her due but tragic that it is occurring only after her untimely death at the age of 56 in 2013.

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