There’s a feather-weight touch of ferocity in Paul Sng’s docu-biopic Tish, that evolves as an intimate and expansive portrait of British Documentary photographer Tish Murtha, who died just a day before her 57th birthday from a brain aneurysm. Hers was a life dedicated to people from working class communities: their hope and strength, their shared distance, and the unspeakable despair in their everyday struggle. If you haven’t heard of her, you are not alone. Go and search for her photographs documented on Instagram at @tishmurtha, and you will uncover a special, tragically beautiful series of pictures. Serving as the opening film of the 30th Sheffield Doc Fest, Tish grows and grows in its reflective abundance, just like her vivid pictures. (Also read: Scoop review: Hansal Mehta sets the bar high in one of the best shows of the year)
Tish begins with a straightforward direction- and it works primarily because the subject itself is so rich and dense, with a strong contextual hold; that any narrative and expositional trickery would have put the semblance of her journey off balance. Her daughter Ella is the one asking the questions and trying to locate her mother’s journey as an artist- someone she knew from within and yet she was not always that. The camera spans her talking with her mother’s family, which consists of her sister Eileen, and brother Carl, and some of her friends and advisors along the way. Through their insight, it is as though Ella is seeking out a parent who was a photographer first- someone whose passion and dedication to her art remained constant throughout her whole life.
The journey takes off through these anecdotes and pictures, as they appear in the years that followed. Her black-and-white, 35mm-gauge portraits of Newcastle’s working-class residents, appear to have their own journey through the course of the film, which also earns her the nickname ‘Demon Snapper’ in the papers. These pictures are interspersed with her anecdotes, memorabilia, and words that provide subtext to the turbulent time of the 1970s and 80s. Her pictures are at once reflective and resonant- focused mostly on the faces of young children who were at the forefront of mass unemployment. Yet their faces reveal a striking optimism and resilience. The beauty in her pictures has got no will to indulge in poverty, but in their scattershot moments of joy, dissent and earnestness. Take note of a picture where it’s just a boy posing directly with his pack of cards, persistent in showing his expression. Such a photograph cannot be taken without building a connection with the subject, we are told. Tish’s primary intention was to connect and to invest in the harshness of her subjects- the camera was a secondary, almost secondary player that arrived a few moments later. It was always the resilience that stood out.
Tish, with its decades-long story, flows gently like a river of genuine emotions, thanks greatly to the editing work of Lindsay Watson and Angela Slaven. The focus remains squarely on Tish’s unwavering commitment to her craft, and one witnesses the growth of perspective and definition in her subjects. From the striking portraits of youth in the Thatcher-era recession, later she would focus her gaze on prostitutes and brothels; in all its provocative, defiant glory. Brief interludes of anecdotes and memories from her life through interviews are filled with her pictures appearing one after the other, as the viewer reaches closer and closer towards the sensibility of an artist at work.
A beautiful moment arrives in this journey when Ella herself is photographed as a child, and the seemingly innocent recital of the nursery rhyme ‘Twinkle Twinkle’ in an audio footage becomes a breathtakingly poignant moment of introspection for a daughter assembling the life and legacy of her mother as an artist. The effect is galvanizing. This is a quietly wondrous film and a profound tribute on the lifelong work of a committed artist.
(Santanu Das is covering Sheffield Doc Fest for Hindustan Times as part of the accredited press.)