Shirley Baker’s startling, sensitive pictures could be of a war zone – but Britain’s first female street photographer, who passed away last year, wasn’t capturing a conflict.

At first glance, Shirley Baker’s pictures could be of a war zone – perhaps Britain during the Blitz, or some ghostly dystopia. They seem to show normal people carrying on as the place they call home is violently destroyed.

But Baker – who is posthumously remembered as Britain’s first female street photographer – wasn’t a capturing a conflict. Instead, she was shooting the streets of Salford in what is now Greater Manchester, which she focused on from 1961 to 1981. Her images show children at play, mothers chatting as they hang the washing, elderly men feeding pigeons – all surrounded by houses that are being razed, the result of post-war slum clearances by the British government.

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Many of her images are currently on at the Photographers’ Gallery in London, which is celebrating her 65-year career with the exhibition Shirley Baker: Women, Children and Loitering Men.

“Whole streets were disappearing,” Baker said in an interview. “And I hoped to capture some trace of the everyday life of the people who lived there. I wanted to photograph the mundane, even trivial aspects of life not being recorded by anyone else. My sympathies lay with the people who were forced to exist miserably, often on end, sometimes years, whilst demolition went on all around them.”

Whole streets were disappearing. I hoped to capture some trace of the people who lived there

Built to house the families who moved to Manchester during the Industrial Revolution, the tightly-packed terraced streets were classed as slums when Baker arrived with her camera in 1961. The government began to clear slums in the 1930s, resuming again soon after the World War Two. Between 1955 and 1975, around 1.3 million homes were demolished.

Baker’s photographs are celebrations of youth, shared community and the enduring ability of people to get by

“A street would be half pulled down and the remnants set on fire while people were still living in the area,” Baker said in an interview shortly before her death at the age of 82 in September 2014. And many of Baker’s subjects didn’t know they were entitled to benefits. “Some squatted in old buildings, trying to hang on to the life they knew. They didn't have much. Things were decided for them,” she said.

Baker’s photographs are not rallying cries of social injustice, but small celebrations of youth and innocence, shared community and the enduring ability of people to get by – regardless of their environment.

There are no playgrounds in Baker’s photographs, for example. Instead, Baker shows girls pushing prams past piles of rubble or turning a lamppost into a swing, and young boys playing cricket on cracked pavements or gleefully helping to demolish the homes of their community.

“The empathy evidenced in Shirley Baker’s images belies a deep-rooted commitment and tenacity that produced some of the most powerful images of a generation,” says Brett Rogers, director of the Photographers’ Gallery. “Her relationship with the communities she worked with is both respectful and revealing. The harsh conditions in the dilapidated houses and desolate landscapes remain secondary to the relationships that were built within and in spite of them.”

Shirley Baker was born in Salford in 1932. The daughter of a successful furniture maker and his wife, she enjoyed a relatively privileged upbringing. She and her identical twin sister Barbara were educated as boarders in Wales before they were evacuated to Chatsworth House in Derbyshire during WWII. 

Baker started to take pictures when she was given a camera by an uncle at the age of eight. She began photographing the people that worked for her father’s business, and in the surrounding streets of Salford.

After finishing school, she decided to pursue an artistic profession. But Baker never promoted her own work. Indeed, for much of her career, she worked almost in secret, actively keeping her photography to herself: she never even displayed any of her photographs in her own home.

Baker never displayed any of her photographs in her own home

Working in an era when women were not expected to take photographs outside of the home, Baker endured plenty of rejection. After studying photography at Manchester College of Technology (with only one other woman on the course) she worked as a photographer for a local fabric manufacturer, recording processes and producing promotional images.

It proved a dispiriting experience. “In a way I had to unlearn what I had learnt on the course, and it took me a very long time,” she once said.

She began tentatively freelancing as a photojournalist, but was consistently denied a press card. At the time, photojournalism was seen as a man’s profession; if women worked in photography at all, they did so in more ‘suitable’ fields, like fashion or domestic life. Baker began to close herself off from the established photography industry, ceasing to pursue full-time, paid jobs in photojournalism.

Pursuing what was seen as a man’s profession, she was consistently denied a press card

In 1957, Baker married Tony Levy, a local doctor, and settled into family life in Wilmslow, Cheshire. Their daughter Nan was born in 1963. Baker continued to spend days on end on the streets of inner-city Salford, creating a body of work now considered among the defining photography of the era.

“She described the streets, to me, as like her second home,” says Anna Douglas, curator of Women, Children and Loitering Men and a friend of Baker’s. “She knew she wasn’t of these people, but yet she felt phenomenally at ease with them. This is not the kind of imagery you would get from a press photographer, because Shirley spent years there. She wasn’t in a rush, and they weren’t in a rush.”

Baker’s photography is the result of years of investment in and engagement with her subjects – some of whom were so familiar with her presence, they seem not to see her at all.

This is not the kind of imagery you would get from a press photographer

“Women ignore her and get on with their busy lives, or look at her as if to say: ‘Come on, get on with it,’” says the art critic John Berger. “Children love her attention, spotting her from afar, running up and clambering all over her, begging for a photograph that they proceed to co-author.

“Shirley Baker is warm toward all her subjects – who in turn return the warmth, allowing an image to be coaxed from their lives,” he says.

In 1989, after eventually sharing her work with a Manchester-based archivist and curator, Baker published her first book, Street Photographs: Manchester and Salford. She joined the Mary Evans Picture Library in 2008.

Her first solo exhibition marked the opening of the Lowry Gallery in Manchester as part of the millennium celebrations in 2000; the Queen was among the attendees. Baker’s current exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery is her first solo show in London.

“These are my pictures,” Baker once said to Berger. “They are the observations of one person. And they tell only a fraction of the story.”

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