Shirley Baker, (1932-2014), was one of the rare female photographers who chronicled life in the north of England from the 1950s onwards. Her street photography was in the ‘flaneuse’ tradition of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank, whom she named as influences. Unposed snapshots of people going about their business were juxtaposed with telling graffiti. She had a great eye for composition that has been under-appreciated next to her compassionate documentation and concern for social injustice, with a particular focus on women and children.
From the 60s, Baker taught photography at Salford College of Art and would always carry her camera modestly stowed in her handbag. In free periods, she began a body of work, spanning 15 years, of the social housing in the area that was being demolished as people lived in semi-derelict slums. Shirley’s work in Salford and Manchester (shot mainly between 1960 and 1973) captured a time of rapid social and economic change in the lives of working class people in Manchester and Salford.”It was a time of much change: people were turfed out of their homes and some squatted in old buildings, trying to hang on to the traditional life they knew.”
Slum clearances, started in the 1930s, resumed in earnest in the 1950s, and in the twenty years between 1955 and 1975, around 1.3 million homes were demolished nationwide. When Shirley Baker began photographing the streets of her native Salford, it seemed that no-one was interested in recording the human story of these soon-to-be demolished communities. Old ladies sitting on doorsteps in a row of condemned houses, men with handcarts searching for refuse to be recycled, children playing inventively among rubble and abandoned cars. That she chose to preserve these moments on film, now seems like the only perceptive response to a vanishing environment. It was not until 1989 that her first book, Street Photographs: Manchester and Salford, was published and Baker began to be more widely appreciated.
In addition to her work in Manchester and Salford, she spent a considerable amount of time capturing Camden Market at the height of punk. Her work was often humorous and she added over the years to collections such as owners who look like their dogs and people falling asleep in public.
Born in Salford, to Alec, a furniture maker, and Josephine, a housewife, Shirley had an identical twin, Barbara, who would also become an artist. They both went as boarders to Penrhos College, in Colwyn Bay, from where during the second world war they were evacuated to Chatsworth House, in Derbyshire. Their parents were unfazed by their daughters pursuing the arts professionally after they left school.
Baker married Tony Levy, a GP, in 1957, and the couple eventually settled in Wilmslow, Cheshire, where their daughter, Nan, was born in 1963. Baker never displayed any of her photographs around their home, although she did like to take pictures of the family. This perhaps summed up the private, almost secretive, nature of her work.
When Baker studied photography at Manchester College of Technology, there was only one other woman on the course. On finishing, Baker’s plan was to work in-house at a company, recording processes and producing promotional images. She started at Courtaulds fabric manufacturers before freelancing for other businesses and doing some journalism, including for the Guardian. Baker encountered difficulties getting a press card, so was unable to pursue photojournalism seriously, and believed she was only given the assignments deemed unsuitable for men. From the 60s, Baker taught photography at Salford College of Art.
Baker kept photographing in later life and completed an MA in critical history and the theory of photography at the University of Derby in 1995. She joined the Mary Evans Picture Library in 2008, and in 2012 had solo shows in Oldham and Salford, with another planned for 2015 at the Photoraphers’ Gallery in London. She was always pleased when people who featured in her work came along to exhibitions. At the opening of the Lowry Gallery in 2000, the Queen not only viewed Baker’s photographs but met some of Baker’s subjects, too.