“The erosion of people by progress” was how one journalist described the bulldozing away of not only a standard of living but also a style of living in Britain, when, over a 20-year period from the mid-1950s, well over a million homes were demolished in what was proclaimed “the biggest clearance of sub-standard housing in Europe”.
Amid the rubble those whose homes were still on the to-do list soldiered on, the women still polishing the step and sitting outside the front door in the afternoon to watch the world go by, while their children played with footballs and skipping ropes against a backdrop of desecration on a Blitz-like scale. But also roaming those streets was Shirley Baker, a master street photographer whose spontaneous, unsentimental pictures compellingly capture an inherently tragic epoch in British history.
Her scenes were never posed – she often set out with the intention of “taking pictures of peeling paint” – but people always found their way into the frame, fascinating her with their sense of humour and resilience. And although street photography has generally been a black-and-white art, Baker frequently used Kodachrome colour stock: “People think of those areas in black and white because that’s how they were photographed. People thought that artistic photos had to be in black and white, but a photograph was near to what you could call reality, so I didn’t see why you shouldn’t do it in colour”. In one striking shot capturing a child swinging from a lamp-post outside a dilapidated corner shop in dusty sunlight, colour allowed something of the fleeting joy of the scene to shine out without prettifying the ghostly emptiness of the location.
A carpenter’s daughter, Baker was born in Salford in 1932; her identical twin sister Barbara became an artist. She was educated at Penrhos Girls School, a boarding school in Colwyn Bay, which relocated to Chatsworth House in Derbyshire during the war, the girls growing vegetables in the grounds to help the war effort. She studied photography at Manchester College of Technology, Regent Street Polytechnic and the London College of Printing, then worked for Courtaulds, the fabric manufacturer, taking promotional photographs for catalogues and advertisements. She freelanced for various businesses and periodicals too, but, exasperated at being pipped to the post by men on the meatier assignments, instead began teaching photography at Salford College of Art.
It was a canny move, placing her in precisely the right place at the right time. Her camera went everywhere with her, concealed in her handbag, and over the next 15 years she built up a superb body of work that as well as Salford also used another suburb of Manchester, Hulme, as a location (Baker headed there after cranes sighted in the distance alerted her to the pummelling of Hanky Park, which had been the setting of Walter Greenwood’s novel Love on the Dole).
Baker’s advice to young photographers was to “learn as much as you can from the photographers you admire – then find your own voice”. So while her work is certainly influenced by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand, it is also strikingly British and defiantly Northern, rich in optimism as well as humour and wistfulness. She was a documenter, capturing the same streets LS Lowry painted: when she met him in 1970 and told him she was a photographer he said his work was the “same thing”.
A decade after Baker’s odyssey, Manchester was a city confused and directionless, and a new wave of music that rejoiced it its locality and seemed fascinated by the strange wasteland parts of it now resembled was the perfect descendent of her work: from Joy Division and the tellingly named Factory Records to the album covers of the Smiths, the city was making a name for itself again, and Baker’s work was very much a stepping stone towards that reinvention.
A notable later work was a commission by the Greater Manchester Record Office to record an average day at Manchester Airport in 1987. Even better, in the 1970s, when the work of her doctor husband had forced her to move to London, she wasted no time in taking a range of vibrant photographs of glum-looking punks in Camden. She was fond of photographing them from a low angle, fringed by brick walls and empty skies, the orphans of progress.
Baker’s first book, Street Photographs: Manchester and Salford (1989) is an essential collection, which she followed up with Streets and Spaces a decade later, looking at those same locations in more recent times. A number of exhibitions of her work took place in the 2000s, with another, Shirley Baker: Women and Children and Loitering Men, opening at the Photographers’ Gallery in London next April. It is a neat title, for it was matriarchs and muddy-kneed street-urchins that populated her best work.
While she accepted that many of the people she had photographed in the 1960s were living in “dreadful conditions, in houses that had to be pulled down”, she was quick to add that “when they built the new stuff, it wasn’t very long before they pulled all that down too”.
High-rise living was a broken promise of postwar Britain, proving that the baby had been thrown out with the bathwater, that people need to see eye to eye and that communities don’t survive vertically. Baker pictures are a powerful illustration of that. They are also a shaming reminder of how even in the age of James Bond and the Beatles, vast numbers of people were still living in Victorian conditions, and yet no matter how bad those conditions were, they found ways to make life worth living.
Shirley Baker, photographer: born Salford 9 July 1932; married 1975 Tony Levy (one daughter); died Wilmslow, Cheshire 21 September 2014.