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.
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.
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.
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.
Fuji Professional 6×9 aka Texas Leica with standard lens. Photograph courtesy of Japan Camera Hunter.
Fuji GS645 II Professional Wide 60 120 roll-film rangefinder camera with wide-angle lens, great for photojournalism. Photograph courtesy KEH Camera.
Fujifilm GX680 II 6cm x 8cm format 120 roll-film camera, like a cross between a view camera with camera movements and a waist-level twin lens reflex camera, lovely for portraits and product shots. Photograph courtesy of Cambo.
Linhof Master Technika Classic 4″x5″ sheet film view camera. Image courtesy of Linhof.
Leica M7 rangefinder camera for analog film photography. The perfect analog rangefinder camera, though Zeiss produced some great electronic analog rangefinder cameras too. Photograph courtesy of Leica Camera.
Mamiya 7 II interchangeable lens 120 rollfilm rangefinder camera. Photograph courtesy of Japan Camera Hunter.
Rolleiflex f/2.8 Twin Lens Reflex with standard lens. Photograph courtesy Franke & Heidecke.
Zeiss Contax N1 6 megapixel CCD single lens reflex camera made for professional photographers, released circa 2002 and “first full-frame 35mm camera to reach the market” according to the late Michael Reichmann. It was reportedly poorly distributed and badly marketed then was withdrawn from sale a year later before it had a chance to prove itself.
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.
Cambo WRS-1600 shift/swing/tilt digital view camera for use with Hasselblad, Leaf, Phase One and Sinar digital backs and a range of digital cameras via adapters.
Fujifilm GFX 50S medium format DSLR-style camera with vertical battery grip.
Fujifilm X-Pro2 digital rangefinder camera with Fujinon XF 23mm f/2.0 R WR “Fujicron” lens and Fujifilm MHG-XPRO2 metal hand grip, a necessity when attaching lenses larger than this one.
Fujifilm X-E3 rangefinder-style camera with Fujinon XF 14mm f/2.8 f/2.8 ultra wide-angle lens.
Leica M10 digital rangefinder camera with Leica Summilux-M 35mm f/1.4 Aspheric lens.
Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II DSLR-style camera with Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 17mm f/1.2 Pro lens with manual clutch focus. Photograph courtesy of Olympus.
Panasonic Lumix DC-G9 DSLR-style camera with Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmarit 12-60mm f/2.8-4.0 Aspheric zoom lens.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX8 rangefinder-style camera with tiling EVF and Panasonic Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm f/2.8 Aspheric Power OIS zoom lens.
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.
Wikipedia – Flow (psychology) – “In positive psychology, flow, also known colloquially as being in the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one’s sense of space and time.”
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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 MHG-XPRO2 Metal Hand Grip for X-Pro2 – B&H
“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.”… “
“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.
Bluecoat Press – Youth Unemployment, by Tish Murtha – “Youth Unemployment is a key body of work in British documentary history…. Almost 40 years on, her talent shines from each page. Finally, she has the book she deserves.”
Café Royal Books – publishes beautiful small books aka “zines” of British documentary photography by a range artists including Tish Murtha.
When I and my then partner had control of the book-buying budget for an Australian university art school where we studied and then taught some years ago, I kept a particular eye out for what I termed “project books”, that is, photo books dealing with a specific topic, theme or project over a short period of time.
I theorized that project books might be good learning tools for our students in the absence of photography exhibitions of any sort in that city’s galleries, a way of gaining insight into how photographers think, see and work.
Few such books actually turned up and most photo books that passed over our desks then could best be described as retrospective artist monographs collecting the work of a photographer over the course of their career or at least a large part of it.
By the time our contracts at the university were over and the old guard took back their power with a vengeance we had a remarkable collection of books of photography, books on photographers and on related topics as well as filmmaking, but there was a hole that I wished we could have filled.
Photo book publishing has changed since and I have been out of the book-buying loop since moving back to Sydney where far fewer photography books and magazines make it to our shores compared to when I was living in London and reviewing and buying books for myself, the magazine I conceived and cofounded, and the top-rank creative advertising agency where I worked for a time.
I was happy, then, to recently make the acquaintance of a reasonably new photo book publisher in the form of Café Royal Books aka CRB via some Facebook posts by Ella Murtha on the work of her mother, the late Tish Murtha.
Tish was one of Magnum photographer David Hurn’s first students in the famous School of Documentary Photography founded in 1973 and located in Newport, Wales.
The School trained many documentary photographers and photojournalists and employed a number of great photographers as teachers.
The School was recently moved from Newport to the University of South Wales in Cardiff under the course directorship of Paul Reas and David Hurn continues to work on personal projects after leaving in 1987.
Craig Atkinson, publisher of Café Royal Books, concentrates on the work of British documentary photographers, much of which has been unjustly forgotten in the years since the golden age of documentary photography in the 1970s and 1980s, and names with which I had been familiar during Creative Camera magazine’s heyday have been turning up in CRB’s list.
Besides Tish Murtha there are David Hurn, Ron McCormick who was also a teacher at the same School, John Claridge, Jo Spence, Brian Griffin, Chris Killip, Homer Sykes, Bill Jay, Patrick Ward and a number of less familiar but no less worthy names.
CRB prices its books at £6.00 each and also sells them on a subscription basis, averaging one book a week and they are produced in very limited editions.
One priceless record of some the finest photography of our times for the cost of less than two cups of coffee is surely well worth the investment.
If you have the means, I strongly suggest subscribing.
“After nearly half a century, the world-renown photography department has moved from Newport to the Welsh capital where, under the direction of Paul Reas and a team of practising professionals, it is preparing students for today’s industry…
… For over four decades, the documentary photography course has forged a reputation as one of the UK’s leading photography teaching destinations….
… “We have always been driven by the industry expectations of a photographer working within a documentary practice. And that’s definitely reflected in the kind of people that we recruit to teach, and some of the teaching methodologies as well.”…”
This morning a mention on social media reminded me of the late, great but undervalued, almost forgotten, documentary photographer Tish Murtha.
Tish Murtha’s daughter Ella Murtha has inherited her mother’s estate and is now working on ensuring the legacy of one of the great British documentary photographers is not forgotten but is commemorated with exhibitions and the publication of her core body of work, Youth Unemployment.