Exploring Tish Murtha’s Lesser Known Collection London by Night (1983)
The act of taking a photo is, always, a charged act. To represent a subject calls into consideration gendered, classed, and racial contexts – a balance that is hard to strike to create a “true” representation that is informed by the experience of the subject, and not the preconceptions of the photographer.
Few have struck this balance as well as Tish Murtha (1956 – 2013), especially in her series London by Night (1983). London by Night explores the lives of Soho sex workers – a series commissioned by The Photographer’s Gallery as part of their group exhibition, titled by the same name.
In her time photographing the lives of sex workers, Tish became friends with one woman in particular – Karen Leslie. Leslie was a Canadian woman, working as a dancer and stripper in Soho. Leslie and Tish would develop a life-long bond, living together in Russell Street whilst Tish worked on her series. Leslie is the primary subject of the series, and wrote the accompanying critical text for the photographs about her experience as a sex worker in London.
Whilst critical of sex work, Tish’s lens is never macabre, or fetishistic of the hardship Leslie describes. This is a strength of Tish’s work – her most famous collections, Elswick Kids (1978) and Youth Unemployment (1981), depict the lives of urban working-class young people with a rare tenderness and appreciation, informed by her own experiences and upbringing. Tish does not treat her subjects as conduits of suffering, but instead highlights their resilience and joy; the key to Tish’s political criticism is in the super-structure, not the subject.
“She loved to photograph people; she always spent a lot of time talking and listening, and was genuinely interested in them,” remembers Ella Murtha, the late Tish’s daughter, in a 2018 interview with the British Journal of Photography. “Growing up we couldn’t go anywhere without her befriending randoms.”
This genuine interest and respect infuses Tish’s work. In her photograph titled Karen, Leslie is powerful, striking; she demands attention, rendered in striking chiaroscuro whilst the men watching her remain flat, dissolving into the black that Leslie bursts out of. “‘Audience is too elevated a term for the men who watch”, Leslie writes in the accompanying caption. “They are punters and bloody wankers to boot.” This is a power of presence Tish frequently highlights – in Madame Pain, her subject’s chin is tilted high, her legs mid stride, in a triumphant, defiant posture.
Part of the reason for the series’ relative obscurity is because it was exhibited for the first time in 2018 – a full 35 years after it was intended to be shown by the Photographer’s Gallery. Leslie was tragically killed not long after the completion of the photo series, knocked off of her bicycle in a hit and run. Tish was devastated at the loss of her good friend, and the collection was pulled from the exhibition out of respect for her.
“I was only 3 at the time, but I remember how sad my Mam was,” Ella recalls in a Mere Mortal Magazine interview.
Six images from the collection are now on permanent display at the Museum of London, or alternatively are available on Tish Murtha’s website.
By Sophie Coldicott