Social Realist photographers of N.E England

Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen and  Tish Murtha are both celebrated photographers known for (separately) documenting the lives of communities within the North East of England.

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 (Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, Byker, Girl on a Space Hopper, 1971)

Both photographers highlight the realities of Northern working class English lives in ways which range from humorous to disturbing. By recording the everyday lives of economically deprived communities, Konttinen and Murtha follow in the footsteps of such great photographers as Dorothea Lange and her documentation of poor migrants during the American Depression.

The documentary photography of Lange, Konttinen and Murtha aims to draw attention and give insights into the everyday. However, the social realism genre is also associated with social comment on the prevailing economic and political conditions. The work therefore often enables  a critical platform to view inequality within the structures of society, often focusing on the marginalised.

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(Tish Murtha, Youth Unemployment series 1981)

Konttinen, who originated from Finland, studied photography in London in the 1960s,  moving to Newcastle Upon Tyne in 1969.  There she co-founded Amber Films, a film and photography collective which aimed to document and reflect working-class life in the area. Konttinen spent seven years documenting her neighbours in the working class east end of the city in which she lived, which culminated in her book Byker. The series captured a community on the brink of dispersal and drastic change, as many of the areas houses were about to be demolished making way for new housing developments. It is a view of 1970’s life which was being experienced by many working class communities across the land. 

Young woman in Mason Street, 1971.

(Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, Byker, Young woman in Mason Street, 1971)

In contrast, Murtha was born and bred in a Newcastle council house, therefore she aimed to reflect maginalised communities as an ‘insider’. Born into a family of Irish descent with nine siblings, Murtha documented life on her own doorstep and the experiences she was part of, in the impoverished west end of the city. The photographer’s work captured an era incorporating the bleak affects of Thatcher’s Britain on Northern communities. One of the photographer’s first exhibitions was called Youth Unemployment (1981), a series which was even used as a source of debate in the House of Commons. In turn, Murtha continued to use her photography to raise many social and political concerns for her home town, as well as for the country as a whole.

Youth Unemployment, Elswick, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1981

(Tish Murtha, Youth Unemployment series 1981)

Both photographers highlighted a world perhaps unknown to many gallery spectators. While Konttinen affectionately focuses on an early 1970’s working class community before it was dismantled, Murtha’s work, photographed ten years later, however reflects a 1980’s community being socially and politically destroyed.

In doing so, Konttinen and Murtha have created a series of work that reflects a Northern working class social history which may be viewed with both nostalgic amusement and political concern.









2 thoughts on “Social Realist photographers of N.E England

  1. Pingback: #womensart | Celebrating women’s art and creativity | Mark Geoffrey Kirshner

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