Social Realist photographers of N.E England

Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen and Tish Murtha are both celebrated photographers known for their individual documentation of 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 highlight the realities of Northern working class English lives in ways which range from humorous to disturbing. By recording the everyday, particularly of economically deprived communities, Konttinen and Murtha follow in the footsteps of such great photographers as US based Dorothea Lange and her insights into the lives of poor migrants during the American Depression. Their shared social realism genre is associated with social comment on the prevailing economic and political conditions. The work therefore enables a critical platform to view inequality within the structures of society, by 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 with an aim to reflect local lives with both respect and gritty realism. Konttinen herself spent seven years photographing 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 houses were about to be demolished making way for new housing developments. Her work is a window into a 1970’s life which was shared by many communities across the land during an era of great social change. 

Young woman in Mason Street, 1971.

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

Unlike Konttinen, Murtha was raised in a Newcastle council house and aimed to reflect the community on her own doorstep. Born into a large family of Irish descent, in the impoverished West End of the city, her 1980s 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. While often preserving a sense of both warmth and humanity, 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 technically and artistically gifted photographers highlighted a world perhaps unknown to many gallery spectators. Konttinen affectionately captured a working class neighbourhood before it was dismantled while Murtha’s work, photographed ten years later, however poignantly raised questions on a community being socially and politically destroyed.

In doing so, Konttinen and Murtha have both created their own body of work that reflects a Northern working class landscape and social history which may be viewed with both nostalgia and socio-political awareness.









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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