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Glorious Photos of Life Up North

Shirley Baker – whose work covers the 1950s to 2000 – might be the best street photographer you've never heard of.

by Oliver Lunn
12 November 2019, 9:30am

All photos courtesy of the estate of Shirley Baker and MACK.

Shirley Baker is not a big name in street photography, but there are plenty of people who think she should be. Best known for her work in the north of England, Baker – who died in 2014 – was an obsessive shooter who was labelled a pioneer by the Photographers' Gallery, "thought to be the only woman practicing street photography in Britain during the post-war era".

How is it that an innovator of street photography could have been so criminally underlooked? To find out, I spoke to Lou Stoppard, the editor of a new book that provides the first full survey of Baker's work from the 1950s to 2000.

shirley baker photographer

VICE: What struck you about Shirley Baker's body of work?
Lou Stoppard: I was surprised by the breadth of it. I was aware of Shirley's work around the north of England. I was aware of her pictures of Manchester and Salford from the 60s and 70s, because there had been exhibitions and publications. When I eventually saw the wider body of work – Shirley's daughter had it in her attic in boxes – it extended right into the early-2000s; there were pictures in different locations beyond the north, there were pictures of London, the south of France. Quite quickly I had this gut feeling that Shirley had been under-appreciated and slightly pigeonholed as a documentary photographer capturing life in the north of England.

Did you pick up on any running themes or visual motifs?
Yeah, for sure. She definitely had an interest in the quieter moments that other people would miss. Often when you look at Shirley's pictures, people almost seem to be performing. But you realise that they're not doing anything greatly theatrical; she just had an eye for these moments of humour, intimacy and oddness. She makes really interesting images of children, which are very subtle. They capture the private world of children with a lot of intelligence and nuance. She often captures children doing odd things. There's a picture of a child playing on a statue of a woman, and the way the child is holding the statue, she's almost groping it. It's a gesture that's so innocent in a child, but almost aggressive as an adult.

shirley baker photographer

What was her relation to Manchester at the time she was photographing the slum clearances?
She was born in Salford, so it was her stomping ground. These terraced houses are being cleared and she was aware that no one was documenting that process. She very much sees herself as one of her subjects, too, and she talks about all the energy that would have gone into putting those homes together, and how no one was really documenting it. All of those lives that had been destroyed and those narratives that had been acted out, and that was all going to be swept away. So she started wandering around and making pictures, and the people there came to know her and trust her. So there's definitely a connection in the sense of: this is her hometown.

What influences or experiences shaped Shirley’s work?
She writes about photographers who she looked at or she was intrigued by, like Cartier-Bresson. I can also interpret some surrealist influences in her work. She makes a lot of images around reflection and mirrors and odd visual coincidences that make things look quite strange. She wasn’t someone who was idly snapping away – she definitely had an aesthetic agenda. She wasn't a housewife with a camera who happened to make a load of interesting pictures. She was someone who took her practice seriously and thought about her own practice, and tried to get it off the ground. There's many reasons why that didn't happen to the degree it should have: she was predominantly based in the north, she was a woman...

shirley baker photographer

Why do you think there weren't more female photojournalists and photographers back then?
Because it was just an industry that valued men. I think there were certain press cards that you couldn’t even apply for if you were a woman. People were not interested in women's contributions. I think it's as simple as that. It was male-dominated, it was a boys' club. But being a female photographer is different to being a female artist: to make a living as a photographer requires commissions, and it requires editors taking an interest in your work. So it really requires other gatekeepers to accept you. In a way, it's a really hard thing to enter as a woman, because it was set up to value the contributions of men over women.

How does Baker fit into the history of street photography at that time?
When you think of her peers, you think of men, right? And it's interesting that Shirley has slipped through in terms of the many books at the moment about female photographers. There's a real moment of celebrating female photographers, and Shirley is not in those books. She's someone that was really ripe for proper celebration. To me, her work is on par with Helen Levitt and Diane Arbus.

shirley baker photographer

So this book is the first full survey of her work?
It's crazy that there hasn't been a full survey of her work, so it's great that that's happening now, and I'm really proud to have worked on it. Her work should be celebrated within institutions, too. She's really very unknown. Obviously there has been work in the UK around her northern street photography, but it hasn't really been about Shirley – often it's more about the theme. Speak to someone interested and informed about photography, and up until now they will have had very little idea of who Shirley Baker was.

What else should people know about Shirley Baker?
What's been fun working on this project, but also kind of daunting, is – I never met Shirley, I didn't know her. There are people who did know her, and it's been great to speak to some of them for the book. But as an editor you're always kind of guessing, and she is a little bit of an enigma. I'm sure I've done the book differently to how she would have done it. We haven’t ordered the images chronologically, we haven't done it by theme, it's a real mix. So obviously it's daunting, and sometimes I think: 'What would Shirley say if she could see it now?'

'Shirley Baker' (2019) by Lou Stoppard (ed.) is published by MACK.

@oliverlunn

See more photos below:

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MANCHESTER
street photography
Shirley Baker