A Woman’s Work spotlights female documentary photographers

A new exhibition organised by the British Culture Archive in Manchester features photography by Tish Murtha and Anne Worthington

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.

Black and white photograph by Tish Murtha of a child jumping on an old car
Top: Karen on an Overturned Chair, 1981 by Tish Murtha; Above: SuperMac, 1978 by Tish Murtha
Black and white photograph by Tish Murtha showing a child jumping from a window onto a pile of mattresses
Kids Jumping onto Mattresses, 1981 by Tish Murtha

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.

Black and white photograph by Tish Murtha showing two children sat on a wall smiling at one another
Richard and Louise, 1978 by Tish Murtha

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”.

Street photograph by Anne Worthington showing children sat in a doorway next to a bicycle
Clayton, East Manchester, 2000 by Anne Worthington
Black and white photograph by Anne Worthington of an adult and two children in a doorway smiling at a man with a ladder on the street
Heather Street, Clayton, 2001 by Anne Worthington

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.

Black and white photograph by Anne Worthington of children wearing rollerblades
Beswick, 2001 by Anne Worthington

A Woman’s Work runs until June 30 at The Refuge in Manchester; britishculturearchive.co.uk