Dereliction & Decay

Capturing gritty images of imposed idleness and the ‘squandering of a whole generation of human potential’, the photographer, Tish Murtha, who died in 2013, provided an intimate glimpse into the dismal reality of growing up in 1980s Newcastle.

Patricia Anne “Tish” Murtha (14 March 1956 – 13 March 2013) was a British social documentary photographer best known for documenting marginalised communities, social realism and working-class life in Newcastle upon Tyne and the North East of England.

In 1976, aged 20, Murtha left home to study at the School of Documentary Photography at The University of Wales, Newport, set up by Magnum Photos member David Hurn. After graduating in 1978, she returned to Newcastle and set out to document “marginalized communities from the inside” – unlike other photographers who came to document social poverty in the region at the time Murtha didn’t just document it, she actually lived it, as the third of ten children of Irish descent, brought up in a council house in Elswick, she captured the lives of her friends, family and the community around her while herself on a job scheme for the unemployed.

Stark and sombre this case may sound, but it was the reality facing much of north-east England’s youth in the Eighties, with opportunity scarce amid industrial decline and stagnation.

Her work and, in particular, her caution that “unemployed, bored, embittered and angry young men and women are fuel for the fire” for “barbaric and reactionary forces in society” looking to make political capital from them, cannot be ignored.

It seems her photography is still as relevant today as it was nearly 40 years ago, as the divide between the north and the south, and the rich and the poor grows ever wider in the teeth of austerity.

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