Alex Prager and Tish Murtha exhibitions

12 June 2018


Open: 15th June-14th October

Two exhibitions at The Photographers’ Gallery featuring American photographer and filmmaker Alex Prager and North East documentary photographer Tish Murtha.

Alex Prager: Silver Lake Drive

Silver Lake Drive is the first mid-career survey of American photographer and filmmaker, Alex Prager (b.1979). The exhibition will feature her trademark, large-scale Technicolor photographs alongside her complete film works.

Her early photographs were predominantly shot on sets in Los Angeles, with carefully staged scenes further heightened by hyper-styled costumes, makeup, lighting and use of a richly saturated colour palette, lending the images a particular dramatic intensity.

In her celebrated Crowd series, each figure is presented in sharp focus drawing attention to individual characters and stories and hinting at interior lives, separate from outward appearances. Prager often depicts spaces where people find themselves, sometimes unwillingly, in close proximity to others: streets, beaches, airport lounges, theatres. Favouring an aeriel perspective, she purposefully pushes the viewer into a position of surveillance, offering an optimal viewpoint to observe the characters in her frames. Occasionally, a single figure – usually a blond ingénue that seems lifted out of a Hitchcock film, or Douglas Sirk melodrama – looks directly up at the camera revealing the theatricality of the set-up.

Similarly, in her films, (which draw upon Film Noir, as well as the work of Maya Deren and Alain Resnais), women take centre stage in open-ended narratives, portraying a range of sharply contrasting emotional states - often with the camera trained in extreme close-up on their faces. Her first film, ‘Despair’ starred Bryce Dallas Howard, while her second short ‘La Petite Mort’ (2012) starred French actress Judith Godreche, with narration from Gary Oldman. Prager sees these immersive film installations as “full-sensory versions” of her photographs; an attempt “to show the before, now and after of one of [her] images.”

In her most recent project, she departs from her usual Los Angeles territory, choosing instead The Opera Bastille in Paris, where she captures the various stages of performance for a prima ballerina – a role performed by Emilie Cozette. The tension between the ballerina and the audience is traced throughout the film, from pre-performance nerves, preparation and ritual, audience anticipation, of excitement and anxiety of the performance right through to the final curtain.] The film also carries a beautifully arranged Stravinsky score by Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich.          

A fully illustrated catalogue will be published with Thames & Hudson in 2018 to accompany the show (publishing date the 14th June 2018).

Tish Murtha Elswick Kids, 1978 copyright Ella Murtha, All rights reserved. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers' Gallery.

Tish Murtha: Works 1976-1991

This new exhibition charts the remarkable accomplishments of documentary photographer Tish Murtha (b. South Shields 1956 - d. 2013) and offers a tender and frank perspective on a historic moment of social deprivation and instability in Britain.

The exhibition surveys six major bodies of work; Newport Pub (1976/78); Elswick Kids (1978); Juvenile Jazz Bands (1979); Youth Unemployment (1980); London by Night (1983) and Elswick Revisited (1987 – 1991). In addition, the exhibition will also include personal letters and ephemeral material from the Tish Murtha Archive.

In 1976, aged 20, Tish Murtha left Newcastle upon Tyne to study at the School of Documentary Photography at Newport College of Art under the guidance of Magnum photographer David Hurn. The earliest series in this show, Newport Pub, dates from this period – where Murtha photographed the realities of everyday life for the regulars of a typical public house in a deprived area.

Murtha felt a genuine sense of obligation to the communities of her home in the North East, and had chosen a course of study which would make her a more effective photographer, one who could highlight the social disadvantages that she herself had suffered.

On returning to the North East, Murtha created Elswick Kids, documenting the children playing on her local streets. Though not exhibited at the time, it led to her employment by a government-funded scheme as a Community Photographer by the Side Gallery in Newcastle.

This exhibition includes two bodies of work Murtha produced on the scheme, Juvenile Jazz Bands and Youth Unemployment. Juvenile Jazz Bands documented children’s marching bands, which were an important part of life in the North East. Initially made with the backing of the band organisers, Murtha defied their expectations of glamorous images and instead produced critically engaged imagery, focusing on the regimental drills and militaristic nature of the bands. She was also drawn to the impromptu Jazz Bands that sprung up, self-organised by the children who had been rejected from the official troupes and paid them equal attention in the series.

Murtha’s interest in unemployed youth grew out of her own experiences and an earlier project she had created in Newcastle for the housing charity Shelter. Murtha witnessed the dereliction of young lives up close and the figures that populate her series Youth Unemployment were often friends, family and neighbours. These strong personal ties to the subject-matter compelled her towards creating work that could help those being offered little assistance in times of mass factory and mine closures. She used her photography to confront the reality and impact of the political decision making of the day. On the 8th February 1981, Murtha’s work was raised as a subject for debate in the House of Commons.

After the Youth Unemployment exhibition in 1981, Murtha moved to London where she was commissioned by The Photographers’ Gallery to create a series on the sex industry in Soho for the group exhibition London by Night (1983). The work paired Murtha’s photographs with texts by her collaborator Karen Leslie who worked as a dancer and a stripper.

The final series in the exhibition, Elswick Revisted touches on racism and the impact of increasing cultural diversity in the area she knew so well.

The Photographers’ Gallery
16-18 Ramillies Street,

Nearest London Underground Station: Oxford Circus


Copyright: Top image: Crowd #3 (Pelican Beach), 2013 © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

Second image: Tish Murtha Elswick Kids, 1978 © Ella Murtha, All rights reserved. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers' Gallery.