A NEW photographic exhibition will depict the harsh realities of poverty in Manchester after the Second World War.

Shirley Baker Estate

The photographs, taken by the late social documentarian Shirley Baker, are set to go on display at the Manchester Art Gallery in May.

Born in Salford in 1932, Baker began taking photos at the age of 8 after receiving a Brownie camera from her uncle.

In 1960, her career launched properly; flitting between densely populated areas, the photographer would continue document the rich lives of working-class people across Manchester and beyond throughout the 20th century.

Though relatively unknown, she is seen as a pioneer of social documentary as the only woman thought to be experimenting with street photography at this time.

Yet, as her daughter Nan Levy highlights, Baker’s striking career choice was anything but intentional:

“Nobody set her a project – she discovered her subjects almost by accident, and I think it became almost an obsession for her from there on in.”

Baker’s work has been described as offering a ‘slice of life’ view on the world in which she lived.

Shrouded in gritty realism, humour and empathy, the subject matter of the exhibition ranges from intimate portraits of working-class children to views of their dilapidated surroundings.

credit shirley baker estate 1
Shirley Baker Estate

Nan said: “She really managed to capture humour. A lot of people who knew her as a person – but not necessarily a photographer – would often say, ‘I love your pictures, they’re so humorous’.”

She goes on to explain that this comic realism was a reflection of her mother’s curiosity and determination.

“She felt compelled to record what she saw- she was drawn back day after day, really.”

Her expansive collection has been showcased across the city a number of times, allowing her to gain recognition throughout the later years of her life.

In 2000, her photography was shown alongside that of the infamous Salford-born artist LS Lowry at the opening of the eponymous gallery in Salford Quays – cementing her status as a pioneer of the local arts scene.

In an interview with the Tate Modern at the time, Baker herself said: “Lowry and I were working in the same areas – Manchester and Salford.

“In 1965 I did a series of colour photographs of Hulme, a Manchester suburb that was very run down.

Shirley Baker Estate

“I went initially out of curiosity, because I’d seen some cranes in the distance when I was in Salford and asked what they were for.

“I was told: ‘Oh, you know, that is Hanky Park and it is being pulled down together with similar areas in Manchester as part of the biggest clearance of sub-standard housing in Europe.’

“So I thought, I’ll go and have a look at that. I was just fascinated by the place. It became almost an obsession.”

Shirley Baker’s Women, Children and Loitering Men exhibition will be on show at Manchester Art Gallery from Friday May 19 until Monday August 28.


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