Shirley Baker at The Photographers’ Gallery

What a joy to be introduced to the work of this documentary photographer, unable apparently to thrive in  the journalism career she’d longed for because of her SEX, yet producing some of the loveliest, most direct, and most communicative street photography on the planet. Like  European and American women photographers in her cohort (think Gertrude Kasebier, Laura Gilpin, Berenice Abbott, Jessie Tarbox, Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange, Lotte Meitner-Graf, Gisele Freund, Lotte Jacobi — oh heck, I’ve got to stop), she took work where she could get it, and she took LOTS of work, in industry, advertising, books, magazines, and as a lecturer at the Salford College of Art in her home town. This scrabbling to live probably ironically made her a more experienced and versatile professional than some of her more noted men contemporaries. The Photographers’ Gallery literature suggests that Baker (1932-2014) was the ONLY woman street photographer in Britain in the 1960s, when the current set of photos was made. REALLY? If true, what a set of losses we have sustained. But this collection is glorious.

 

Photo of Shirley Baker in 1982, from her obituary in the Manchester Guardian in 2014.

Baker’s exhibit, titled “Women, Children, and Loitering Men,” collects her documentary photographs from  Greater Manchester (Salford, Hulme, and so on) from the early sixties to the early eighties, in times of “slum clearance.” The images of children playing in the rubble make it VERY easy to misdate these shots if one hasn’t read the explanatory material. The children are dirty, ragged, and generally smiling happily  — often, one gathers, at the photographer, who used a Rolleiflex for these projects. The Rolleiflex makes the photographer look down at a viewfinder to compose a shot — much as today’s articulating screens allow — and thus, as curator Anna Douglas explains, takes the camera out from between the photographer and her subject.

 Baker began her career in black and white, as most documentary photographers did in that era. But some of her Manchester photos are in color. I believe one of the reasons the Baker exhibit was mobbed while its companion exhibit, on photography and music, was sparsely attended, was the place it took so many of us codgers — right back into that odd decade of the sixties. In fact I heard one viewer reminiscing to his companion about fleeing the “bobbies” as a kid. Truly.

 You’ve gotta love this image, with its red-haired girls loitering around, playing on a free day, while the mothers chat in the background.

These were some of the most well dressed kids depicted. One of the reasons the viewer could so easily misdate the bulk of the exhibit is that the photos bring back images of the 1930s, and even the 1890s. For the Manchester kids, at first glance, not much had changed — and indeed, it took Britain a very long time to pull out of its postwar economic slump, and as always, the people on the bottom rung suffered the most. But there are hints of change in their clothing and their demeanor, as well as in the very film quality that Baker used for the color shots. For heaven’s sake, these were the go-go years of the Beatles and London’s rush to the forefront of world fashion trends. And yet — I do remember touring Europe as a college student just a few years later, in the early seventies, and seeing remnants of World War II all around, both in Britain and on the continent. We in the U.S. were sheltered from the physical and economic devastation.

But the conditions suggested in these photographs have complicated causes and origins: layered, like the pictures’ evocations of earlier times. “Slum clearance” had begun in England as early as the 1920s, to replace crumbling industrial-era worker housing,  and building projects became imperative after World War II because of widespread bomb destruction. But as in the United States, by the 1970s highrise replacements for the demolished brick hovels had become government policy, and though most of the new tenants liked the amenities they had never had, they missed their neighborhoods, which had been destroyed by the wrecking ball as well as the trend of building council housing on the outskirts of the cities. Slum clearance in Britain was as flatfooted, it seems, as it was in the United States: destroying existing communities and building structures that nobody vitally involved had been asked about. Classism (of course we know better than you do what you need and should want) continued to run rampant, and not just on the east side of the Atlantic.  One recalls Robert Moses’s stubborn razing of whole swatches of New York City for the sake of moving cars through as efficiently as possible.

Several of these photos captured men “loitering,” as the exhibit’s title suggests, although one can see that a number of them were of retirement age.

 The cats are scruffy, too, though this feline has real substance.

Manchester, 1964

 

Baker moved to London to follow her husband’s medical work in the 1980s, and she continued her documentary work, as well as traveling the world on assignments. A few paragraphs back I sounded off about the sexism that pursued women in this profession as in all others, but we know that photography was one of the endeavors peculiarly open to women in its early decades, and because the photographer could choose to be anonymous, to some extent, it was a profession that continued to be possible for those women impassioned about it. And Baker truly was one of those women.

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One thought on “Shirley Baker at The Photographers’ Gallery

  1. Pingback: Broom, Pankhurst, and His Royal Highness | The historian's lens

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