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I’ve been to see ‘Tish Murtha: The Demon Snapper’

The late photographer Tish Murtha has a strong place in the firmament of the North East. She is best known for her documentary photography from the 1970s and 1980s, which brought the reality of life in the impoverished and marginalised urban communities of the North East to wider attention. Her photographs often combine gritty reality with a touch of humorous intrigue. They drew attention to social disadvantage while also celebrating the tenacity and grit of those experiencing it.

She was also known locally as the person who did the first professional headshots of Dec, of Ant and Dec fame.

Newcastle City Council recently decided to name a new social housing development as ‘Tish Murtha House’, and is holding three exhibitions of her work in celebration. ‘Demon Snapper’ is—perhaps bravely—the first of these. It leans into Murtha’s reputation for controversy early in her career, the title taken from an epithet given at the time by a local newspaper.

The controversy stemmed from Murtha’s 1970s work documenting ‘Juvenile Jazz Bands’—groups of children dressed up in military uniforms and parading through the streets playing marching anthems on kazoos and glockenspiels, as a sort of weird tribute to colliery brass bands.

Murtha thought these groups, and in particular their militaristic associations, were harmful. As she said at the time,

a child must put aside all normal behaviour, and become the plaything of the failed soldier, the ex-armed forces members and their ilk; any spark of individuality is crushed by the military training imposed, until the child’s actions resemble those of a mechanical tin soldier, acting out the confused fantasies of an older generation.

Murtha’s photographic contribution to the debate was to create an exhibition juxtaposing her pictures of the uniformed bands with other shots of backstreet kids rejected from the bands imitating them, like the one below.

From a modern perspective, it’s hard to argue with Murtha’s position, but it caused enormous controversy at the time.

I enjoyed this small exhibition partly because Murtha’s photography is eye-catching and intriguing, but also because I respect the fact that the Council is willing to lean into the controversy when celebrating Murtha’s success.

In the modern world, we so often hear about ’cancel culture’ that we can get the impression that even mild controversy is a barrier to long-term success. There is something brave and yet reassuring about the Council celebrating someone’s success and also celebrating their controversy, rather than shying away from it.

Tish Murtha: The Demon Snapper theoretically closed on Friday, but it was still hanging on the second floor of Newcastle City Library when I visited yesterday, so perhaps there’s still a chance to see it (if you’re quick).

The second exhibition in the series (‘From the Inside’) is apparently open in Cruddas Park library now.

The third (‘Camera in Hand’) will be a permanent exhibition inside Tish Murtha House itself, open only to residents. Bravo.

This post was filed under: Art, Post-a-day 2023, , , .

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