Shirley Baker Exhibition: A snapshot of life worth seeing but not celebrating 

Review: By Simon Donohue

Written in 1965, an article published in The Economist and forming part of the backdrop to Manchester Art Gallery’s fascinating Shirley Baker photographic exhibition provides a stark reminder of the constantly changing face of the twin cities of Manchester and Salford.

The publication sits in a glass cabinet in the centre of the ground floor exhibition and helps to illustrate how far we’ve come in a relatively short period of time – my own lifetime in fact.

The CIS tower is now part of the ‘old’ Manchester but was a modern landmark at the time Baker was taking pictures.
It refers to a contemporary (1965) architectural highlight as the newly constructed landmark of the Co-operative Insurance tower and the way its imposing form is juxtaposed with both the gothic finery of Manchester Town Hall and the grim remnants of the city’s fast fading former factories and slums.

If Manchester City centre was only just finding its feet and finally emerging from straitened post-war times, then Baker’s photographic stomping grounds remained almost third world in social standing.

I was born in 1971 and while I don’t feel particularly ancient, the pictures taken in the same year of my birth, and only a stone’s throw from Hope Hospital, where I came into the world, demonstrate just how lucky I was to be born into a relatively up and coming part of the city.

Social tourist

The daughter of a factory owner, my uneducated guess is that Shirley Baker was something of a social tourist. She clearly became familiar and friendly with the subjects of her work and it’s suggested that many of her pictures were staged. The people in the pictures enjoyed being photographed. Whatever Baker’s background and the authenticity or otherwise of her pictures, they are both impressive and necessary. Knocked back from the male dominated world of professional photography, she was a determined amateur who spent decades chronicling the lives of ordinary people in the crumbling terrace streets, back alleys and slum clearance sites. Considering that much of this was less than 50 years ago, and set against the shimmering glass and steel of modern Salford Quays, it’s staggering to believe that people were living like that at a time when we were starting to build sky scrapers.

Shirley Bakey Photography Exhibition

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I’m not sure of the intention for the work, but my reaction was a mix of nostalgia and sadness. The people – my people (these streets neighbour the areas where my own parents and grandparents were born and grew up) look dirt poor but happy. This is an age of proud, working class values and no hope of escape. Even the photographs taken when Baker started to experiment briefly with colour film are a little colourless.

I found the whole exhibition interesting but a little joyless. We know many of the pictures were orchestrated but there’s not much particularly positivite or happy about them in most cases. Drab, dreary and depressing are the snapshots of grey lives that are worth seeing but not celebrating. Kids play with holes in the road and gas masks, proud householders dust down properties standing next door to condemned and dilapidated homes. This isn’t the nostalgia of remembering fond and better times.

Thankfully, we’ve moved on massively. It’s a genuinely fascinating exhibition which runs at the Manchester City Art Gallery until August. There’s an audio tour which provides more in depth stories about the subjects of the pictures that the kids will love too. There’s also an opportunity pin a flag in a giant map of Manchester and Salford, helping to show how close your own ancestors were from the photographs Baker took.

Shirley Baker: Women and Children; and Loitering Men, is at Manchester City Art Gallery until August 28. Free.
Find out more about the Shirley Baker exhibition by visiting the Manchester City Art Gallery website.