A new book, edited by Lou Stoppard and published by MACK, uncovers the extraordinary and extensive legacy of one of Britain’s most prolific street photographers, Shirley Baker
Born in Salford in 1932, Shirley Baker made her first photographs aged just eight, taught by her uncle how to develop film in the “darkness of a coal shed”. Baker never forgot this experience and later, inspired by Henri Cartier-Bresson to capture “a slice of life”, she set out onto the streets, camera in hand. “I like to watch people,” she wrote, “not as a snooper with a hidden camera, but as a member of the public like anyone else on the street”. Though she wasn’t like everybody else – in the earliest days of the 1950s she was perhaps the only female street photographer in Britain. When Baker died in 2014 she left behind a legacy of social documentary photography spanning some 50 years. It’s only now, however, that the full breadth of her work is seeing the light of day in a new publication, edited by Lou Stoppard and published by MACK.
Baker’s best-known work was made around her hometown, Salford, capturing the final vestiges of a working-class way of life amid the slum clearances of the 60s and 70s; her closeness to and compassion for her subjects draw comparisons with Dorothea Lange’s photos of the Great Depression. In Salford and Manchester during these decades, neighbourhood bonds were being torn apart by the piecemeal demolition of decrepit, maligned Victorian terraces which still bore the scars of the Blitz. “Streets were disappearing and I hoped to capture some trace of the everyday life of the people who lived there,” the photographer once said. “I wanted to photograph the mundane, even trivial aspects of life not being recorded by anyone else.”
The world Baker depicts is caught in a seemingly endless summer afternoon. But while she’s idling the streets, she’s drawn to the people: children playing between washing lines and burnt-out cars; grandmothers watching furtively from doorways; men are notable by their absence. Yet Baker always maintained the importance of truth over myth. “How easy is it now to look back with nostalgia to the community life and the quaintness of the ‘good old days’, but it is easy to forget the other side of the coin: the leaking roofs, running taps, the mould of the walls, the smell of outside lavatories, the fact that there was no hot water and no baths.”
Few people have followed Baker’s later work, but Stoppard does, showing another side of her character: that of a subtle humourist who delights in optical illusions and coincidences and who holidays in the south of France, Italy, and Japan, all the while holding the same fascination with the hustle and bustle of crowds. Never imposing herself, Baker was expert at waiting for or happening upon the right moments. In each picture her inquisitive lens distils the tension between our propensity to act out exaggerated personas in public, through dress and habits, and the simultaneous ease with which being in a crowd allows us to slip into obscurity, relax, and reveal our private selves. Taken as a whole, her practice charts society’s subtle and sudden shifts: it’s strange to think that the Day-Glo mohawks of Camden punks are closer in time to smoke-choked Salford docks than today.
During Baker’s lifetime, her work was exhibited only a handful of times. She worked mainly as a freelancer, writing with distinct irony that this at least gave her the ‘illusion’ of creative freedom. In fact, she tried often to exhibit her work but was met with rejection. Still, she must have known its worth: each of her rejection letters was carefully archived along newspaper cuttings, essays, and masses of unseen negatives. We should be thankful that her curious, almost obsessional habit of recording the minutiae of life means that we can, at last, lift Baker out of the long line of neglected female photographers and celebrate her dedication to our shared history.