“Everyone knew about these communities. People passed them daily on the bus, but they never went inside. People were turned out of their homes. Some squatted in old buildings, trying to hang on to the life they knew. They didn’t have much and things were decided for them… I wanted to do something. But what could I do? I decided I would go out on to the streets capturing this upheaval, photographing people I came across… I couldn’t help it: around every corner there was someone different. It became an obsession”
Against a backdrop of long-term slum clearance programmes that would radically reshape the landscape and communities of many Northern cities post-war, Shirley Baker’s photographs offer an empathic but not sentimental portrayal of the everyday lives of working-class people living in the inner-city neighbourhoods of Salford and Manchester. Taken between 1961 and 1981, Shirley did not set out on a twenty year study: “Wandering the unpicturesque streets of Manchester and Salford with a camera seemed quite crazy to most people at the time,” she recalls. But undeterred, and not trying to impress anyone, she saw it as her personal duty to be there with her camera, to represent peoples’ experiences.
Shirley’s photographs have been described as a grim record of inner-city poverty. However, in these images one also finds humour, formalist and aesthetic expression, as well as her concern for narrative drama. Her subject matter, most commonly women and children, with men less frequently observed, expresses her curiosity for children’s play, for maternal nurturing, women’s daily lives, and human interaction and communication, which lifts her photographs above any limiting view of them as purely historical documents or evidence of Northern poverty. Shirley is a teller of stories through photography that make visible the spectrum of hopeful human resilience.
“Not since the photographs of the Farm Security Administration in America in the thirties have I seen someone photographing people in deprived states and getting herself so involved’. Colin Ford, Founding Head of National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, Bradford, UK.
This is a selection of street photographs from the many hundreds that Shirley took. The original prints of many of the images featured on this page can be purchased from the Shirley Baker estate. Please refer to the Contact Us page for further details.