The sold-out London premiere of Shirley Baker: Life Through a Lens took place at the British Centre for Photography on 18th May. Nan Levy, daughter of Shirley, and the centre’s director James Hyman were both present. John West, the film’s writer and producer, also attended.
James Hyman introduced the evening and engaged Nan in a fascinating Q+A session about Shirley, as seen through her eyes. Nan recalled times during school holidays where Shirley would disappear into the darkroom for hours. Sometimes she enjoyed helping; other times the painstakingly laborious printing process would bore her and she would sit outside the darkroom begging her mother to take her out.
John West’s sensitive and comprehensive narrative highlights just how unusual and unprepared the world of photography was for women in the 1960s, career-wise. And Nan alluded to the fact that newspapers didn’t credit her mother’s photos – a situation that lingered till the 1990s and contributed to her remaining unknown for so long.
The film steers a course through Shirley’s life, a mix of the personal and the political; and with the main body of her work taken during a time of great social upheaval there was plenty for her to work with. John emphasises just how strongly the political shifts of the time influenced, whether directly or indirectly, Shirley’s choice of subject matter as she moved from slum clearance in Manchester to punks in Camden, to the beaches in the South of France. Things came full circle as she returned to her Manchester and Salford work in the 90s and reignited the themes of community and separation.
Here was Shirley’s life, seen, as the title of the film illustrates, through a lens, with perception, clarity and always with a sympathetic eye towards those she photographed.
Shirley Baker: Life Through a Lens is a sensitive and moving portrayal of both the photographer and her work, and the rapidly shifting world she inhabited. Screenings are on now in London and Manchester with further screenings to follow.
Shirley Baker: Life Through a Lens. Executive Produced, Edited and Directed by Jason Figgis. Written and produced by John West. Co-produced by Nan Levy
Shown at the Centre for British Photography