This solo exhibition at the Photographer’s Gallery in London curated by Anna Douglas showcases a decade’s worth of work by street photographer Shirley Baker. The exhibition showcases a rare and intimate perspective into 1960-1980’s street life in Salford and Inner City Manchester during the times of slum clearances and social and economic hardship. Baker developed an intimate and trusting relationship with the residents of these working class communities, despite being born into a higher class herself. She spent many years building up this trust with the residents and this close relationship is evident within her work.
The exhibition starts with a bold quote on a wall that expresses Baker’s views towards the slum clearances and provides an insight into why Baker produced the work in the first place. The quote is as follows: “My sympathies lay with people who were forced to exist miserably, often for months on end, sometimes years whilst demolition went on all around them.” Around the corner from this quote is a small dark room which contains a tv screen and headphones where the viewer can watch an interview by the curator Anna Douglas. I found that the video played a significant part in understanding the exhibition. This combined with information about the social background on the wall in the middle of the exhibition furthered my understanding of Baker’s work and its significant from a social history point of view.
Often documentary photography can be very one sided and the power balance more in favour of the photographer rather than the subject, however Baker gives the subjects the power. The images within the exhibition were mainly black and white, however her colour work also made a small appearance towards the end of the exhibition. In addition to this, the images were in clusters which all had a similar theme and subject. For example there was a section with children playing with makeshift toys in the streets and then a section on the elderly and then women going about their daily routines such as hanging washing out. Without these clusters the exhibition would have no clear structure, as the images were not laid out in chronological order but rather allegorically. This is perhaps one of the only criticisms of the exhibition I have. I believe that the colour work should have been displayed on its own and not mixed in with the black and white images. I believe they are stronger on their own and distract you from the black and white images.
The children interacted and engaged with the camera and during an interview Baker recalled that the children used to plead with her to have their photo taken. Being from a working class family they were likely to have never experienced having their picture taken before and to them this would of been intriguing and exciting, the curious expressions on their faces in the images reinforce this. Baker managed to capture the carefree nature of the children yet simultaneously document the poverty they grew up in and the rapidly changing world around them. While walking around the exhibition the sounds of street life and children playing echo around the space and bring to life the images. The sounds worked well within the space and recreated the atmosphere of the busy inner city areas. However I feel that without the sounds the exhibition would have been just as effective.
In the centre of the exhibition was a clear glass cabinet which contains ephemera items such as newspapers and contact sheets which form an archive of the behind the scenes and the background of her work. One of the more interesting items inside the cabinet was the camera that Baker used for all of her images. It allowed the viewer to gain a further insight into how she produced the images. Baker used a Rolleiflex while photographing the slums and unlike in DSLR camera’s or even 35mm cameras, the viewfinder of the camera meant that you had to look down. This allowed her to be fully present and engage with her subjects while taking her images.
Baker’s work changed the typical style of street photography and her disconnection with other photographers made her work extremely personal and she did not feel compelled to photograph people and places in ways that were popular amongst other street photographers and photojournalists. Instead her work is unlike any other work during that time period and the exhibition highlights how without her work on the slum clearances there would be very little documentation of it.
In a male dominated industry, Baker stood out as a female photographer and faced many rejections from newspapers. However this did not deter her from creating her own body of work. Her unique images provide a record of social history during post- war Britain and show the strength of community and the determination of people to get by with very little. The dilapidated houses and bleak environment become almost secondary when viewing the images; it’s the subjects and the relationship Baker had with them which draws you into the image.
Although Baker was less well known compared to that of Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank, she was determined to change the way street life was documented and the types of images that were published in newspapers. She did not set out to create nostalgic and sentimental images, rather to produce images that give a true representation of the people who lived there and their everyday lives. This meant photographing even the mundane and trivial aspects of their lives and celebrating the youth and innocence of the children growing up in the slums, as well as the close-knit communities that had been built around this hardship. Overall the exhibition was very enjoyable and insightful. It gave an empathetic yet candid portrayal of inner city areas facing hardship that I have not seen captured like that before.