Tish (2023) ‘Sheffield DocFest’ Review: Any film that ostensibly projects itself as setting out to foreground the work of a neglected artist, illuminate them in public discourse and vest it with credence invites cynicism and doubt. The viewer immediately wonders how soon and how much the film will adopt hagiographic impulses in its quest to render visible a figure that it perceives has been shunned and dismissed. Will it accommodate a more humane, self-aware, and critical portrait or merely genuflect to the artist being conferred with a sainthood of sorts?

Opening the Sheffield DocFest, Paul Sng’s film, Tish, recuperates the life and work of British documentary photographer Tish Murtha through the journeys and conversations Murtha’s daughter, Ella, undertakes. Ella meets her mother’s friends, siblings, and tutors at college, venerable photographers in their own right, these conversations lit by genuine warmth, respect, and curiosity. Nostalgia hangs heavy with a patina of a deeply undesirable, rocky past.

Recollections that frame most of the film do not reflect ideal times; they articulate times most resistant to not just Murtha’s specific form of artistry but entire generations of youths left dangling on the precipice of uncertain jobless futures. Murtha saw what was in front of her and recognized their need to be seen so as to endow the lives of the people she grew up with value and dignity. Her work was driven by a self-proclaimed need to document as proof and evidence and provide a vital record of events and experiences that shaped the trajectory of her life and the breadth of her interests.

Murtha was an artist who held and nurtured a profound, intimate, and loving relationship with her surroundings and those who occupied them.  “To photograph the tribe, you’ve got to be part of the tribe; you’ve got to dance the same dance,” someone remarks early in the film.

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What immediately distinguishes her work from standard, assembly line work coming out of various arts councils of England is the authentic, truthful impression that emerges, indicating the photographer did not merely parachute in and out of the frames she has presented. She spent time developing trust before she photographed; for her, the people she captured rose above being subjects and were intrinsic to the very highest ideal that she sought in her aesthetic practice.

Sng pays keen attention to how Murtha’s work crafted alternative historiographies of Britain, noting her embrace of marginalized communities in the best of her photography, which never concedes to either miserabilism or rose-tinted romanticism. Curator Gordon McDonald insists Murtha’s work, in its bracing honesty, which makes the history of working-class Britain available.

All her life, Murtha tenaciously chafed at the conventions within which she was expected to produce her work, refusing to be manipulated by the aesthetic codes and constraints of England’s leading art and cultural institutions. She severed linkages with Side Gallery of Newcastle in a clash with their aesthetic attitudes that tended to see poverty through a lens of fake, varnished beauty. Murtha chose to fill her work with beauty and joy but as a means to an end, supremely wary of all the easy trappings of documentary photography.

The film spans Murtha’s leanings, social commitment, and artistic preoccupations from her adolescence to her later years, treating them as inextricable from one another. It traces her journey from her native town of Elswick to the multi-racial, culturally hybrid, and diverse neighborhoods of Middlesbrough, an application documenting which was turned down by Britain’s arts council. We come to know of a childhood spent in dire poverty under the shadow of a violent father and a mother who encouraged the cultivation of artistic urges despite their grim finances.

She was among many siblings who would go out to scavenge lead scraps in the derelict, crumbling, and abandoned houses of Elswick in Newcastle that lay waste to industrial ravages. This is how she first stumbled across a camera. There was not much scope for documentary photography in the college courses she had applied for and was studying. Several tutors reiterate her persona’s recalcitrant toughness, steeliness, and utter uncompromising essence. David Hurn, who was also her tutor at Wales, amusingly recalls her admission interview being the briefest, her statement that she would like to photograph policemen kicking kids an instant clincher. That she was a firebrand of a kind is clearly suggested in the gritty textures of her work.

The film is a patchwork of photographs, and conversations Ella holds, interspersed with Maxine Peak’s voiceover narration of Murtha’s diaries, letters, and unsparing, trenchant essays directed at Thatcher’s Government. The mode of narration Sng adopts is simple and direct; there are no formal surprises here because the subject herself has such a volcanic, persuasive force that immediately connects to the viewer through the pictures we are handed. Polemics powered her work through the 70s and 80s till the early 2000s, her engagement with various eras unwavering, ranging from juvenile jazz bands, the massive unemployment crisis, disaffection and consequent protest spurred by Thatcher’s Youth Training Scheme, and Soho’s sex workers and strippers in the mid-80s.

Tish celebrates the boldness of the choices and decisions she made, alienating the cultural patronage her peers would receive. Yet, she stood by them in full stead, never retreating nor buckling under pressure. The film traverses a vast history, and occasionally I felt some key episodes were shortchanged; certain directorial choices do not lend much gravity, especially the intermittent short sequences of a woman going about mundane activities in her flat, coming off as superfluous and banal.

In the final years of her life, Murtha transitioned to color photography but had lost the edge, struggling desperately with severe economic activities as repercussions of the 2008 crash and anxiously scouting for jobs to somehow sustain herself. The film also obliquely skates over Murtha’s travails as a single mother, making shaky, feeble associative comments on other female photographers of her day grappling to establish a longer foothold in their profession but deprived of support structures, especially with a child in tow.

However, the compassion in Sng’s film and Ella made me care for Murtha, and I confess to batting away a tear or two as it wound up. This is a long overdue homage to a radically defiant artist who populated her work with extraordinary tenderness and resilience, mining strength from the weave of the everyday life.

Tish screened at the 2023 Sheffield DocFest

Tish (2023) Links: IMDb, Sheffield DocFest
Director: Paul Sng
Language: English
Runtime: 90 Minutes
Editor(s): Lindsay Watson, Angela Slaven
Cinematography: Hollie Galloway


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