Shirley Bak­er is only now being recog­nised as one of the most impor­tant female pho­tog­ra­phers and social doc­u­menters of the last century.

The haunt­ing and com­pelling 2007 doc­u­men­tary of Joy Divi­sion, direct­ed by Grant Gee, opens with a mon­tage of images of Man­ches­ter in the 70s. It depicts a time of sweep­ing changes after the post-war streets were sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly cleared of ‘slum dwellings’ and occu­pants were rehoused in shiny high-rise devel­op­ments. As became evi­dent pret­ty swift­ly, pover­ty was not elim­i­nat­ed, mere­ly tem­porar­i­ly masked, and a new, creep­ing social pover­ty began to man­i­fest itself.

Joy Divi­sion’s sound came into being in this mael­strom of post-indus­tri­al upheaval, a lega­cy of the era of the cot­ton mills which spread over the city and its satel­lite towns, a fine lay­er of dust hang­ing heavy in the damp Man­ches­ter air. In Gee’s doc­u­men­tary, Joy Divi­sion’s ambi­ent ‘inte­ri­or land­scape’ coa­lesces to form the band’s dis­tinc­tive grit­ty, moody sound.

Shirley Baker 2

Those images remind me of a world cap­tured a decade ear­li­er by Man­ches­ter pho­tog­ra­ph­er Shirley Bak­er, whose ret­ro­spec­tive is at The Pho­tog­ra­phers’ Gallery, Lon­don, 17th July to 20th September.

Shirley Bak­er was born in 1932 and was brought up in Man­ches­ter. When she was sev­en or eight, a neigh­bour bought her and her iden­ti­cal twin sis­ter a present each: a Brown­ie cam­era. For Shirley, this was a life-chang­ing moment, her sis­ter recalls how she was mes­merised by the cam­era and thus began a life­long obses­sion. She stud­ied pho­tog­ra­phy at Man­ches­ter Col­lege of Tech­nol­o­gy and then went on to teach at Sal­ford Col­lege of Art. Dur­ing the 60s, she became frus­trat­ed at being denied a press card, which she inter­pret­ed as a result of being woman in a male-dom­i­nat­ed indus­try. At the same time, she became aware of vast changes tak­ing place in Man­ches­ter and Sal­ford, and turned her pho­tog­ra­pher’s eye to cap­tur­ing the city, its peo­ple and com­mu­ni­ties, real­is­ing this was a way of life about to be lost for­ev­er. She would wan­der through the streets alone with her cam­era, talk­ing to the locals, whom she pho­tographed with a sear­ing hon­esty and a gen­tle humour.

The extreme pover­ty of the times is painful­ly evi­dent, and some of the images, as Shirley point­ed out, look almost Vic­to­ri­an rather than from the 1960s, but these huge­ly pow­er­ful social doc­u­ments show above all the human­i­ty and pride of the peo­ple who lived there. Shirley’s pho­tos are a trib­ute to the fam­i­lies left liv­ing in a kind of lim­bo, watch­ing hous­es and streets flat­tened, won­der­ing when it would be their turn to be rehoused in one of the brand new con­crete estates which, by the late 70s, were already falling into a state of decay. Shirley spent enough time in those crum­bling streets to become acquaint­ed with the fam­i­lies, and espe­cial­ly the chil­dren who would crowd round her, jostling to be pho­tographed. I can under­stand how she would have been able to gain their con­fi­dence; she was always a very patient lis­ten­er, qui­et­ly spo­ken and nev­er impos­ing. She would allow who­ev­er she was engag­ing with to be the focus, and always showed gen­uine inter­est in oth­er peo­ple. Shirley put peo­ple at ease, and man­aged to make them feel com­fort­able enough so they no longer noticed this strange woman with her cam­era in their midst.

My mem­o­ries of Shirley are of an intense­ly pri­vate per­son. Being a twin gave her the per­fect oppor­tu­ni­ty to hold back and observe, allow­ing her nat­u­ral­ly more gre­gar­i­ous sis­ter to take the lime­light. Her secre­tive nature was part­ly due to the fact that she did­n’t want to raise expec­ta­tions. But she need­n’t have had con­cerns, her work was increas­ing­ly appre­ci­at­ed through­out her life­time. What shines through her work is the pas­sion for her sub­jects; this is what drove her, not fame or a desire for mon­ey, indeed this long­ing for sim­plic­i­ty was reflect­ed in every aspect of her life.

A rather sad lone survival of a Victorian Terrace in Moss Side, Manchester. The floral curtains seem to show that this building is still being occupied, although the open cellar window, lack of front door and broken glass suggest the fate of this building may already be set. Photograph by Shirley Baker Date: 1964
A lone sur­vival of a Vic­to­ri­an ter­race, Moss Side, 1964.

Since the mil­len­ni­um, there has been a grow­ing recog­ni­tion of the impor­tance of her work – and a real­i­sa­tion of the rar­i­ty of female pho­tog­ra­phers at this time. An exhi­bi­tion at The Lowry in Man­ches­ter in 2000 was an indi­ca­tion of the large body of work she had amassed (the Queen vis­it­ed, much to the delight of many of the chil­dren in the pho­tographs who were present at the occa­sion); Sal­ford Muse­um and Art Gallery held an exhi­bi­tion in 2011, this com­pre­hen­sive show took in a sweep of work from 1960s Man­ches­ter to street life in Cam­den in the 80s and beyond.

The visu­al pow­er of her images has led to Shirley’s work find­ing a place on record covers.

Black­pool-born folk artist Gus Mac­Gre­gor (below) great­ly admired Shirley’s work. He says, “I just find she cap­tures a humour and beau­ty out of what might oth­er­wise be bleak.” He used sev­er­al of her works as a back­drop for a series of gigs last year in Bern, Switzer­land, and wrote a song enti­tled Before The Unions Fell which was inspired by her work.

Gus MacGregor

And so it con­tin­ues… the che­quered his­to­ry of the great north­ern city still proves to be the dri­ving heart­beat for artists and musi­cians. Julie Camp­bell, aka LoneLa­dy, recent­ly released her sec­ond album Hin­ter­land, a work inspired by her own north Man­ches­ter land­scape. See my review of her at Rough Trade East.

Shirley Bak­er’s upcom­ing exhi­bi­tion, ‘Women, Chil­dren and Loi­ter­ing Men’, was in the ini­tial stages of plan­ning when Shirley became ill; the event is now a ded­i­ca­tion to this gift­ed and orig­i­nal artist. Why the title? Is it anti-men? Far from it – it refers to the fact that men were usu­al­ly out at work, or had been killed in war. The streets were the pre­serve of women and chil­dren, and those men who were present were usu­al­ly ill or elder­ly. This exhi­bi­tion is a pow­er­ful, and in some ways shock­ing, look at a time of upheaval and urban decay which proved inspi­ra­tional to so many Man­ches­ter artists.

Shirley Baker Exhibitions: 

Women, Chil­dren and Loi­ter­ing Men by Shirley Bak­er at The Pho­tog­ra­pher’s Gallery, 17th July to 20th Sep­tem­ber 2015


Shirley Bak­er’s two books: Street Pho­tographs, and Streets & Spaces. Both now out of print


With thanks to Tom Gill­mor at Mary Evans Pic­ture Library for his kind­ness and help. All pho­tog­ra­phy cour­tesy of Mary Evans Pic­ture Library / Shirley Baker

2 thoughts on “The Photographers’ Gallery, images of Manchester by Shirley Baker

  1. Fas­ci­nat­ing. I real­ly enjoyed this arti­cle. Shirley Bak­er real­ly did pro­duce a body of work that is very spe­cial. I come from a poor work­ing class back­ground (though not big city) and its so good to see peo­ple por­trayed in this way and not as bunch of par­a­sit­i­cal chavs – which seems to be so com­mon these days. Real­ly won­der­ful images and social doc­u­men­tary. I shall have to go on ebay and see if I can find some of her books.

    1. Thanks for your love­ly com­ment and glad to hear you like Shirley Bak­er’s work. I’m not sure where you are based but you might be inter­est­ed to hear that there are a cou­ple of exhi­bi­tions her work is includ­ed in over the next few months. The next one opens on 11th May as part of Pho­to Lon­don at Pho­to Fusion in Brix­ton. There may be a work or two at Som­er­set House as part of Pho­to Lon­don. If you can’t find her books, you could let me know and I can see if I can track one of them down for you.

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