The Photographers’ Gallery present Women and Children; and Loitering Men
, the first London exhibition by pioneering British photographer Shirley Baker (1932-2014).
Thought to be the only woman practicing street photography in Britain during the post-war era, Shirley Baker’s humanist documentary work received little attention throughout her sixty-five years career. This exhibition includes previously unseen colour photographs by Baker alongside black and white images and ephemera such as magazine spreads, contact sheets and various sketches. It specifically focuses on her depictions of the urban clearance programmes of inner city Manchester and Salford. This intense period of study, spanning from 1961 - 1981, documents what Baker saw as the needless destruction of working class communities.
Her photographs testify to the poverty and resilience of communities under siege. In examining these street scenes, the exhibition aims to highlight Baker’s appreciation of alternate values and life experiences found in this community while conveying her compassionate affection, empathy and indignation for the plight of her subjects.
Images are presented in narrative and thematic, rather than chronological sequence, in which people and places from different times co-exist to evoke experiences, memories and relationships. Photographs are arranged in groupings starting with mothers and children and continuing with gangs of children playing in the street, single figures and couples engaged in everyday life. Men, mainly elderly or unemployed, make rarer appearances in her compositions. Their idle, sidelined presence conveys a sense of the passing of time and of loss.
The final set of images presents broken urban landscapes, rubble, junk and abandoned shops and houses. These stark vistas emanate social destruction and a feeling of vulnerability which stands in sharp contrast to the lively scenes of the early 1960s.
Accompanying the exhibition is a specially commissioned sound piece composed by Derek Nisbet.
Baker claimed never to have posed her pictures, an action inimical to her documentarist ideals, however her multi-layered images and exacting compositions imply dwelling on a scene till each element falls into place. Her visual puns, often the result of juxtaposing ‘chance’ elements in her field of vision, result in a humour and everyday surrealism that would have eluded most passer byes.
Objects and scenes take on significance beyond their literal appearance. Half demolished walls and peeling wallpaper resound with the lives once lived. Her meticulous focus on graffiti, brings the plain brickwork to life and generates backdrops for scenarios in which her ordinary subjects, in their functional environments, become momentarily extraordinary.
Shirley Baker: Women, Children and Loitering Men
17 July - 20 September 2015
The Photographers' Gallery, London
Image: Shirley Baker, Hulme, July 1965 © Shirley Baker Estate / Courtesy of the Shirley Baker Estate