The British Culture Archive is staging a free exhibition in Manchester that examines 50 years of documentary photography by women, starting with two photographers whose perspectives are rooted in parts of northern England.
It features work by the late Newcastle-born social documentary photographer Tish Murtha, who began documenting everyday life in Elswick – a district on the west side of the city – in the late 1970s.
The era produced a heralded clutch of postwar documentarians of British life, particularly in the north of England, yet where others often singled out bleakness against the backdrop of rampant Thatcherism, Murtha’s images are comparatively intimate and joyous.
Battered cars, stacks of mattresses and debris-filled streets aren’t simply symbols of deprivation – they are opportunities for play. As a member of the community she often photographed, her emotional proximity to her subjects is both seen and felt.
Also in this first stage of the exhibition is work by Anne Worthington, who similarly documented an area with which she had close ties. After relocating from her home city of Blackpool to Hulme in Manchester, she became part of a “mix of artists, ex-students and squatters who had made the partly abandoned blocks of flats their own”, according to the British Culture Archive.
Her work in the exhibition provides a view of east Manchester during the early 2000s, in particular the areas of Beswick, Clayton and Openshaw, on the cusp of radical change as industrial buildings were cleared for redevelopment, “marking the end of an era of squat culture”.
Like Murtha, Worthington’s photographs show that if the streets belonged to anyone, it was the children and teenagers in the area, whose character and playfulness radiates through the rugged architecture.
Following this first iteration, there will be a second stage to the exhibition featuring different works at a later date.