Shirley Baker (1932 – 2014) was born in Salford, near Manchester, and lived in Wilmslow, in Cheshire for most of her married life. She took up photography at the age of eight when she and her twin sister were given Brownie cameras by an uncle. Shirley’s passion for photography stuck and she went on to study Pure Photography at Manchester College of Technology, being one of very few women in post-war Britain to receive formal photographic training. Upon graduating, she took up a position at Courtaulds the fabric manufacturers, as an in-house factory photographer. Working in industry did not meet her photographic ambitions in wanting to emulate a ‘slice of life’ style similar to that of Cartier-Bresson. She soon left to take up freelance work in the North West.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s she continuously photographed a range of humanist subjects, sparked by her amusement and curiosity of human character and behaviour, and a compassion for social injustice. However, it is her empathetic but unsentimental photographs of inner-city working-class communities in Salford and Manchester as they experienced years of ‘slum’ clearance that has come to define her distinct vision. This twenty-year period sees Shirley evolve her ideas of documentary form and subject matter.
It was not until 1986 that her photographs would come to wider public attention with the exhibition Here Yesterday, and Gone Today at Salford Art Gallery, a collection of photographs that make visible the spectrum of human resilience within the working class communities of Salford and Manchester. In 1989 a book was published – Street Photographs: Manchester and Salford, which brought the works of Shirley Baker to national critical attention.
In 2000, her street photographs were exhibited again, this time contrasted with the paintings LS Lowry, in an exhibition to celebrate the opening of the Lowry Centre in Salford. There was an accompanying publication called Streets and Spaces: Urban Photography. Ten years later, two retrospective exhibitions took place in Salford and Oldham. Then in 2013 Shirley’s photographs were in a group exhibition in Nottingham, Saturday Night Sunday Morning: the authentic moment in British Photography, curated by Anna Douglas.
Shirley’s first London solo exhibition was in 2015, Women and Children; and Loitering Men at The Photographer’s Gallery. This was curated by Anna Douglas and was one of the gallery’s most attended exhibitions. The accompanying book was also a success and the first and second editions sold out before the end of the show. This exhibition is toured to China in 2015, Madrid during the summer of 2016 and will be installed in Manchester City Art Gallery from May 2017 and hopes to continue to tour.
In May of 2016 some of Shirley’s street photographs were shown at Photo London, a major annual international photographic event, held at Somerset House. As part of Photo London, Photofusion launched On the Beach by Shirley Baker, an exhibition of Shirley’s beach photographs taken through the 1970’s of Blackpool a northern English seaside town, contrasting sharply with those taken on the beaches of the French Riviera.
Over Shirley’s extensive career, she continued to observe the world around her. While her ‘street photographs’ may epitomise her career, there are many other bodies of work taken over several decades, equal in quiet poetic drama and everyday humour which we hope to show over the coming years.