Shirley Baker

I’m surprised to find that I never seem to have mentioned the work of Shirley Baker (1932-2014) on this site. A  post on Facebook today reminded me of her work, and linked to a gallery of pictures on The Guardian, which also carried a good obituary of her last October.

I never – so far as I know – met her, though we walked many of the same streets in Manchester. Some of her finest work came from Hulme, through which I walked every day in my first year at university – and where, a few years later, after it had all been demolished, I learnt to drive along empty streets lined with rubble and just the odd pub and church still standing, the community destroyed by redevelopment.

On my way I walked past scenes like those she photographed, though at the time I could not afford to take pictures. I lived too in streets like these for the first three years of my married life, on the top floor of a house like those in her pictures – a few years ago I could have gone back and bought it for less than the price of a good digital camera.

I went back to Hulme too, after the redevelopment, as a volunteer interviewer for a sociology project; going into the new system-built  flats which were instant slums, already damp and leaking at the seams due to poor assembly. Before long they too were demolished and replaced. Streets of houses like those demolished in 1974 or 5, well over a hundred years old, still stand, and many have now been renovated and improved. Again The Guardian had a good article about a fairly similar area in Liverpool recently.

Much of the time I was in Manchester I didn’t really have a working camera, having dropped my Halina 35X into the lake when visiting Versailles in the summer of 1966. Eventually a boatman managed to fish it out, but it was never the same again. The shutter would work sometimes, but the speeds it gave were random, though generally on the slow side. The few black and white pictures I took have heavily over-exposed negatives, generally with camera shake.

It wasn’t until around 5 years later that I could afford to replace it, and in the whole seven years I spent in Manchester I only took and handful of films. I was busy with other things, and simply could not afford films or processing – and had no idea of how to develop or print my own.

Baker studied photography at the Manchester college where I took my second degree (by that time it was a university and a part of the ‘white heat of technology’) and when she took the pictures of Hulme was a lecturer in photography in neighbouring Salford.  She worked too for newspapers, but felt that she was only given the jobs that were thought to be suitable for women and not worthwhile for her male colleagues.   According to the newspaper article there is to be a show of her work at the Photographers Gallery in 2015.

Looking at her pictures is for me in part looking at those memories of my own I failed to photograph, an exercise in nostalgia. But I’m sure her work also has meaning for those who don’t have that shared experience, and is also an important record of how people lived and played and of social attitudes and a community which has disappeared in so many places. You can see much more of her work – around 340 pictures including some from London and abroad – by searching on her name at the Mary Evans picture library.



2 Responses to “Shirley Baker”

  1. ChrisL says:

    Here’s an essay topic: Shirley Baker:Vivian Maier compare and contrast paying particular attention the the commercialisation of photography.

    I would say how wonderful her books are but I have struggled to find Street Photographs at a reasonable price for quite a while already.
    Also particular mention of her early use of colour.

  2. I imagine it was a fairly small print run, presumably to go with her 2000 exhibition at the Lowry.

    I think almost all photographers used colour at that time, it just didn’t get published much or regarded as important. Almost all the pictures I still have of my own from the the 1960s are colour transparencies.

    I find her work more interesting that that of Maier.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.