Shirley Baker was a pioneer of social documentary photography in Britain – especially so for being a woman in a traditionally male profession (unions restricted women working as press photographers until the 1960s). Still not widely known, Baker has finally been given a well-deserved retrospective at The Photographers’ Gallery in London, which focuses on her images charting the clearance of slum housing in Manchester and Salford from the 1960s to the early 1980s.
Baker’s photographs are bursting with life and character. Women sit on doorsteps in their aprons gossiping or watching life go by with a careworn dignity; exuberant children crowd in front of the camera displaying their latest playthings – broken sticks, plastic guns, hopscotch chalked onto the pavement. The overall effect is one of a vibrant, if poverty-ridden, community – and so the gradual destruction of the infrastructure of a community is made all the more poignant. The buildings may be dirty and the streets narrow, but they are convivial, and on a human scale. As Baker recalled in an interview, “there was so much destruction: a street would be half pulled down and the remnants set on fire while people were still living in the area. As soon as any houses were cleared, children would move in and break all the windows, starting the demolition process themselves.” The final image of a mother and child walking through an urban wasteland towards a soulless tower block is deeply melancholy.
Born in Salford and driven by an “expensive hobby”, Baker studied Pure Photography at the Manchester College of Technology in the 1950s. She described her style as “a preference for the casual, intuitive snapshot rather than the formal, carefully composed photograph” and felt that “less formal, quotidian images can often convey more of the life and spirit of the time”; she loved “the ability of the camera to capture the serious, the funny, the sublime and the ridiculous” and admitted being drawn to “the unusual in the usual.” She worked predominantly in black and white, though for a period in the sixties she experimented with colour to joyous effect. The results are poetic and nuanced, primary hues arranged almost like an abstract study, yet remaining an integral part of the narrative of the image: in one a child’s yellow dress and two red front doors stand out against the dull greyscale of the brickwork street.
Each photograph stands alone, its tight compositional balance combined with spontaneity echoing the ‘decisive moments’ of Cartier-Bresson. Yet together they also make a powerful impact, documenting both a specific community being torn apart and a wider phenomenon taking place across the industrial North of England that strikes one in hindsight as sadly misguided.
By Kitty Hudson
‘Shirley Baker: Women, Children and Loitering Men’ is at the Photographers’ Gallery, 16-18 Ramillies Street, London W1F 7LW, from 17th July until 20th September 2015. For more information go to www.thephotographersgallery.org.uk.