Shirley Baker (1932 – 2014) was one of Britain’s most compelling yet underexposed social documentary photographers. Her street photography of the working-class inner-city areas, taken from 1960 until 1981, would come to define her humanist vision. Shirley’s curiosity and engagement with the everyday world around her resulted in many different strands of work, many of which are yet to be exhibited, each of which confirms her acute observation, visual humour as well as compassion for the lives of ordinary people as distinctive in its exploration of post-war British culture.
“It has always astonished me how quickly things can disappear without a trace.”
Shirley Baker was born in Salford, near Manchester. She took up photography at the age of eight when she and her twin sister were given Brownie cameras by an uncle. Shirley’s passion for photography stuck and she went on to study Pure Photography at Manchester College of Technology, being one of very few women in post-war Britain to receive formal photographic training. Upon graduating, she took up a position at Courtaulds the fabric manufacturers, as an in-house factory photographer. Working in industry did not meet her photographic ambitions in wanting to emulate a ‘slice of life’ style similar to that of Cartier-Bresson. She soon left to take up freelance work in the North West. Further study in medical photography over one year in a London hospital did little to settle her ambition to work as a press photographer. Hampered by union restrictions on female press photographers, she abandoned plans to work for the Manchester Guardian. Though she took up teaching positions in the 1960s, ultimately it was in pursuing her own projects where she came to feel most fulfilled.
Free from briefs from picture editors, Shirley gave herself time to observe and make her own pictures, resulting in collections of photographs that explore British society in transition following Word War II and leading up to the more materialistic 1990s.
“I never posed my pictures”