Scarborough Film Festival showed the upcoming documentary Tish at their most recent screening, Tish is an exploration of the life of social documentary photographer Tish Murtha and was shown as the opening film at Sheffield DocFest this June. The film paints a rich portrait of a hugely talented subject who was underappreciated in her time and not granted the platform and attention that her work is receiving in the years after her death.
Ella Murtha, Tish’s daughter is our access point into the film, exploring her mother’s life through interviews with family, friends, teachers, and mentors. The film also includes readings from Tish’s personal writings which are delivered in voiceover by Maxine Peake and convey the passion she had for her work and for her community. It becomes clear through interviews as well as the use of her photography archive throughout the film, that for Tish these strands of her life were inextricable from each other. Each interview has a tenderness that brings a sense of tangibility to Murtha as a subject that is really commendable, especially as Ella and her interviewees don’t shy away from the complexities and difficulties she faced throughout her life and career. Tish’s siblings share truths about their family and personal lives that grant us insight into Tish’s background and everyday experience. Of course, the rich archive of Tish’s work is omnipresent and the frankness and beauty of her photography reflects the scenes that the interviewees describe.
It is clear that Tish as a film aspires to the sensitivity and dignity with which Tish herself approached her subjects. Ella Murtha’s close involvement in the project and the filmmakers’ clear passion for their subject contribute to the way the film is able to reflect feelings evoked by Tish’s photography throughout her life. The interviews and reading of Tish’s correspondence accompanying photography from her ‘Demon Snapper’ era, aka the Juvenile Jazz Bands series conveys the tongue-in-cheek, rebellious view of Tish in this time period. Later in the film, interviews with her friends and collaborators on London By Night (1983) evokes the mood of the place and time as well as in Tish’s life as well as the precarity of her situation at the time.
Ella Murtha’s access to her mother’s archive allows us to view a huge amount of Tish’s collection that has been largely unseen. In the past few years Murtha has been able to publish book versions of Youth Unemployment, Elswick Kids, and Juvenile Jazz Bands, as well as the National Portrait Gallery acquiring some of Murtha’s prints. While the documentary is an often emotional journey ending with the tragedy of Tish’s sudden death, Ella Murtha’s commitment and various successes in securing her mother’s legacy in British photography lends the film a bittersweet ending. Tish’s unwavering commitment to her communities and to speaking truth through her art is demonstrated by the warmth and clarity with which she is remembered by those who knew her.