Shirley Baker

Manchester

1967

Artist
Shirley Baker 1932 – 2014
Medium
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Dimensions
Image: 213 × 273 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased with funds provided by the Photography Acquisitions Committee 2020
Reference
P82523

Summary

This is one of a number of photographs in Tate’s collection by the pioneering British photographer Shirley Baker, who is thought to have been the only woman practising street photography in Britain during the post-war era (see Tate P82515–24). Her pictures of the working-class near her home in Manchester, taken between 1960 and 1981, were recognised late in her career but would come to be her most critically acclaimed works. Throughout her career, she continually photographed a range of humanist subjects, sparked by her curiosity in human behaviour and a compassion for social injustice.

Baker’s style of street photography was directly influenced by the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908–2004) and the Swiss-American photographer Robert Frank (1924–2019). The photographs in Tate’s collection capture daily life on the streets of inner-city areas of Manchester, including Hulme and Salford. They depict children and women outside their homes or in the surrounding streets. Baker deliberately included the dilapidated buildings of the area as a backdrop for these intimate and unstaged portraits. Most of the works have a spontaneous character, but in some the individuals seem highly aware that their picture was being taken. The artist stated that she never asked individuals to pose, commenting that ‘the children would often clamber all over me when they spotted the camera, begging me to take their picture’. (Quoted in Nan Levy, ‘Introduction’, in Baker 2018, p.14.) Often the children would pose themselves, as can be seen in the photographs Salford 1962, Manchester 1965 and Manchester 1967 (Tate P82515, P82520 and P82522). The works illustrate Baker’s acute observation and compassion for the lives of ordinary people who defined post-war British street culture. Historian Griselda Pollock wrote in 2015:

As a street photographer, a wondering and astute observer of social spaces and their unexpected transactions and encounters, Shirley Baker belongs in the great tradition of women who have contributed a singular vision to the history of photography that involves looking out, looking round, looking beyond their own worlds and yet finding solidarities and affections that traverse real and often agonistic class differences.
(Griselda Pollock, ‘Foreword’, in The Photographers Gallery 2015, p.7.)

The photograph Hulme 1965 (Tate P82519) stems from a period of several months when Baker, known to photograph primarily in black-and-white, experimented with colour photography. She printed these pictures at a Manchester-based colour printer. The works from this period show children and women in front of terraced housing. Rather than being captured mid-activity, the subjects can be seen lingering on the pavement as if they are waiting for something or someone. The decision to record the lingering positions of the people could be read as a reflection of the future that awaits them. Whilst taking the photographs, Baker was highly aware that large parts of these areas were soon to be demolished due to a huge ‘slum’ clearance programme, which would lead to the relocation of its residents.

The photograph Salford 1964 (Tate P82517) was taken in the historic centre of Salford, depicting a wide-open space that formerly held social housing blocks, now demolished and cleared. This area was known to have some of the worst housing conditions in England. Subgrade dwellings had been built very close together with factories in between. Plans to redevelop the area with new tower blocks were aimed at improving the environment, creating spaces for parks, a library and banks. In the photograph a remaining Victorian building can be seen in the background and a woman with a pram can be seen crossing the open space. When asked about her photographs taken in Salford, Baker would later say: ‘My sympathies lay with the people who were forced to exist miserably, often for months on end, sometimes years, whilst demolition went on all around them.’ (Biography of the artist on the website of the Shirley Baker estate, http://shirleybakerphotography.com/bio/, accessed 30 September 2019.)

In the last phase of her life, Baker was directly involved in the development of her exhibition, Shirley Baker – Women and Children; and Loitering Men, held at the Photographers’ Gallery, London. The exhibition opened in 2015, the year after her death, and continued to tour internationally. The photographs in Tate’s collection were all included in this exhibition.

Further reading
Shirley Baker, Street Photographs: Manchester and Salford, Newcastle upon Tyne 1989.
Shirley Baker, Streets and Spaces: Urban Photography, Salford 2000, published to accompany an exhibition at The Lowry, Salford.
Anna Douglas (ed.), Shirley Baker: Women and Children; and Loitering Men, exhibition catalogue, Photographers’ Gallery, London 2015.
Shirley Baker, Without a Trace, Manchester and Salford in the 1960s, Stroud 2018.

Mels Evers
September 2019

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