One of the leading photographers of the past century, Shirley Baker, sadly died towards the end of September. Here Tom Gillmor, of the Mary Evans Picture Library, who are guardians of her archive, pays tribute to her work.
Shirley first contacted Mary Evans Picture Library in early 2008. From looking through the first few printed pages she sent to me, featuring a mass of small contact photographs, I was immediately struck by a body of work of terrific quality and amazing potential. Shirley’s work in Salford and Manchester (shot mainly between 1960 and 1973) captured a time of rapid social and economic change in the lives of working class people in Manchester and Salford.
Slum clearances, started in the 1930s, resumed in earnest in the 1950s, and in the twenty years between 1955 and 1975, around 1.3 million homes were demolished nationwide. When Shirley Baker began photographing the streets of her native Salford, it seemed that no-one was interested in recording the human story of these soon-to-be demolished communities. Old ladies sitting on doorsteps in a row of condemned houses, men with handcarts searching for refuse to be recycled, children playing inventively among rubble and abandoned cars. That she chose to preserve these moments on film, now seems like the only perceptive response to a vanishing environment.
Shirley had an eye beyond that of the pure recorder of fact; she had an uncanny ability to spot incidental humour in the scenes of everyday life which surrounded her. The majority of her work needs no caption, as the emotions, energy and sense of place leap out from the scene. Later work – through the 1970s and 80s – moved geographically further afield but retained the same innate eye for quality of composition. Her wider work as a writer and lecturer, has allowed many others a clear insight into her approach and technique.
From the moment we started to make Shirley’s work available to our clients, it has proven perfect for both editorial and creative purposes, offering humour, social history and the innocence and joy of youth, set against a backdrop of a rapidly changing world. Her work has appeared on book covers, music albums and in TV documentaries around the world, and even inspired a singer songwriter (who went on to use her work as a backdrop to his live performance).
Speaking personally, it was wonderful to finally meet Shirley face-to-face at her exhibition at the Salford Museum and Art Gallery in January 2012. She took great delight in my interest in the process behind the creation of the photographs, but was at the same time very humble and modest, preferring to hear my reactions to her work.
She was always delightful to contact if a query regarding her work arose, and the excitement which always greeted an email popping into my inbox with a new scan of a recently-discovered image, will be greatly missed.
Shirley Baker (1932-2014)
Here is a selection of her work.
Shirley Baker featured in The Guardian’s Best Shot feature in 2012.