Shirley Baker was one of the most compelling yet unsung heroes of British Documentary photography. Born in Kersal, Greater Manchester in 1932, she showed an interest in photography from an early age, attending Manchester College of Technology to study the subject. It was in the 1960s, while teaching at Salford College of Art, that she began to photograph the slums of Greater Manchester. These inner-city areas were barely inhabitable; examples of poorly conceived and rushed construction – a legacy of the Industrial Revolution. For many years these areas had been designated for demolition, but the gears of change were slow.
This exhibition focuses on the 15 year period during the 1960s and 1970s when Baker recorded the lives of ordinary working people in the urban areas of Hulme, Salford and Manchester. The scope of her work relfects the protracted changes these environments underwent. Through her work we can trace the cramped, dilapidated rows of dank buildings giving way to streets of half-demolished houses, as newly constructed apartment blocks gradually rise up in the background.
The majority of Baker’s photography, strikingly detailed in black and white, evokes an antiquated world, at odds with the notion of England as a developed country. Some of her images are Dickensian; dirt smeared children playing in muddy cobbled streets. Others suggest a World War 2 era landscape; devastated buildings and debris strewn play areas, children sporting gas masks.
Evident in much of the exhibition is the infamous squalor referred to in The City of Manchester Plan of 1945, which condemned “the drab streets, the dilapidated shops […] the sulphurous and sunless atmosphere” of Manchester’s inner-city areas. The industry polluted skies and monochromatic surroundings only increase the disparity of time and place depicted by Baker; one at odds with the collective memory of the sixties as one of ‘flower power’ and colourful psychedelia.
Her work is refreshing, especially in the context of our ‘selfy obsessed ‘ times, because it shows people truly engaging with their environment and with each other. She affectionately observes people in the streets: in one shot a young boy mimics his father who leans against a wall, his work colleagues looking on amused drinking tea. In another, two boys reach into an open drainpipe to retrieve something (“Health and Safety”, who?).
What shines through this series of photographs strongest is the sense of community, of people coming together. As the narrator says in the documentary The Changing Face of Salford 1967-1970, “though it is an accepted fact that the new housing conditions are beyond comparison with the old, there is one sad loss; the sense of communal life so strong in these slum areas”. Community is the glue of these neighbourhoods and of Baker’s work. While these pictures document a world of dissolution and poverty, they are not mired in misery. The dirty streets are their meeting places and playgrounds. Men seek solace together outside abandoned buildings. Groups of women smile and chat on their doorsteps. Children rummage among the rubble with friends, seemingly unburdened by their surroundings. Adults work, children play: people endure
Shirley Baker: Women, Children, and Loitering Men runs at The Photographers’ Gallery until September 20th
Daniel Pateman studied Humanities and Media at Birkbeck University and continues to indulge his abiding interest in the arts. He has enjoyed writing since a young age and currently produces articles for a number of online publications. He keeps a blog called The End of Fiction, consisting of his poetry, prose and other creative work, and is currently looking to forge a new career in the creative industries.
Shirley Baker, Manchester 1968 © Shirley Baker Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery
Shirley Baker, Manchester, 1967 © Shirley Baker Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery