Earlier in 2014, acclaimed British photographer Shirley Baker passed, aged 82. She was a documentary photographer born in Salford, a truly working-class city in northern England whose urban plight was to inform most of her work for years to come.
Like many street photographers of the 1960’s, she sought to capture the essence of working class life in deprived areas, where poverty was rife, brutality was a constant, and where rare moments of happiness were an absolute cause of celebration in an area of post-war England where many tried hard to just get by, scraping a living together in order to pay the bills. Fathers laboured in the pitch-black coal mines for 12 hours a day, with mother’s feeding the children on whatever they could get their hands on.
If there is a political slant to Shirley Baker’s work, it is surely socialist. Her starkly black and white compositions are often filled with women and children who have clearly fallen on the hardest of times, evoking memories of Charles Dickens’ poverty-stricken Victorian London. Dickens writes in his famed novel Bleak House, “The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest.” Indeed, in Baker’s photographs, not much has changed in 1960’s Salford from 19th century London. The afternoon’s are still among the rawest, the fogs the densest, and the streets are thick with mud.
Social injustice is a a thread that runs throughout her photographs of the disintegrating north of England. Yet there is a hint of happiness here; laughing children who are making the best of things are prominent. They smile widely for the camera, their happy innocence a hallmark of their youth. They don’t know what is to come. The adults in the pictures, who know better, are not always as jovial. But what Baker is trying to show is that people in working-class areas of the north of England throughout the 1960’s built solid communities. They weren’t bullied into total misery; they had moments of joy, part of which is captured through Baker’s lens.
Neighbours living in houses so close to one another went to the shops together, they went to pubs together; they went to work together, had dinner together. There is this real sense of community in Baker’s work that transcends the almost hopeless landscape that surrounds the inhabitants. “I cannot claim that my photographs represent anything other than a few wisps teased from some of the countless threads that form the intricate tapestry of our lives,” she says.
Shirley Baker’s work is embroidered into the culture of Manchester and Salford in England. Her photographs adorn flyers for local club nights, posters of political seminars and regularly feature in local exhibitions. But, though the majority of her work is confined to these two major cities, their subject matter will be recognised by people all around the world. Destitute families in Russia will be able to relate, as will post-communist families in European nations such as Bulgaria and Armenia. Shirley Baker’s work is a timeless reminder of the need for friendship and community in the face of urban decay.