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To the inner city with Shirley Baker

Poverty and exuberance in Manchester’s slums

Simon Willis | August 7th 2015

In the early 1960s, the British photographer Shirley Baker began a 15-year project in Manchester and Salford. Her subjects were the slums of the inner-cities, which were being razed in a grand redevelopment plan. More than 60,000 houses were marked for demolition in Manchester alone, to make way for new housing and shops. But construction couldn’t keep up with destruction. As The Economist reported on February 27th 1965, the people who lived in these houses were being “hustled out of their condemned homes at six weeks’ notice”, only to “see the bare ground still there six months later.” The muddy vacancies left over and the half-destroyed streets strewn with rubble became the backdrop to Baker’s pictures, most in grainy black and white, which are currently on display at The Photographers’ Gallery in London in an exhibition called “Women, Children and Loitering Men”.

“Manchester making good”, the headline of The Economist’s piece, which you can read in a display case at the gallery, clashes powerfully with the dereliction in the pictures. You feel that a more accurate phrase would be “Manchester making the best of it”. Facing you as you go in is a giant blow-up of boys playing cricket in the street, a lightless lamppost standing in for stumps and, over the road, an open expanse where houses have been knocked down. Baker’s pictures of children, which make up most of the show, are full of exuberance and opportunistic playfulness as well as grinding poverty. For them, the landscape is there to be explored as well as withstood. A laughing boy clambers over a backyard gate on which someone has painted “NO CHILDREN ALLOWED”. Kids stalk the streets in gas masks and flying goggles, and make robot costumes out of boxes of Hartley’s garden peas. One sweet girl tramps around in a man’s gigantic leather lace-ups, while three others lean against a windowsill, their feet half-filling womens’ high heels.

Baker, who died last year at the age of 82, took her pictures in her time off from teaching photography at the Salford College of Art, and used a Rolleiflex camera, a tool beloved of street photographers because it is operated at chest height, allowing your eyes to engage with your subject. Here the intimacy it affords is seen best in brief glimpses, like the toddler staring through parted net curtains, her dummy in her mouth, clearly fascinated by the woman outside the window.

The pathos that underlies all the playing is heightened by Baker’s time-frame, as well as by some judicious curation by Anna Douglas. Baker described the 15 years during which she shot these pictures as “a time of much change: people were turfed out of their homes and some squatted in old buildings, trying to hang on to the traditional life they knew.” And yet, looking at the pictures you’re struck by how little changes. In one image, taken in 1968, a filthy child in wellington boots stands in the mud in front of a pile of broken bricks (above). In another, taken a decade later, we see a public toilet with a wasteland behind it. On the front of the toilet someone has scrawled “shit” with two arrows pointing towards the his and hers entrances, the signage also passing for pithy commentary. Occasionally Douglas juxtaposes the pictures to emphasise the situation’s grim permanence. Below the three girls in high heels are two weathered women sitting outside their front door in house dresses—an image of the adulthood the girls’ fantasy might grow into.

Not that Baker overdoes the deprivation, or is blind to romance when she finds it. In her colour work you can find a timeless warmth, especially in an image of two girls swinging on a rope in evening sunlight (right). Nor is she blind to comedy, and it only adds to the tone of forebearance which makes this show so affecting. Sometimes the comedy is touching and sometimes it’s played for bitter laughs. The very first shot in the exhibition is full of dark irony, as people queue outside a rehousing office which is itself housed in a caravan. But amid the urban wreckage, it’s advertising which delivers the best and most absurd jokes and which also shows Baker’s sharp eye for composition. A particularly sardonic moment comes in a photograph of a billboard, carrying an advert for Regent’s petrol: “Regent’s for results!” Next to it is a burnt-out car, and next to that is a white street sign saying, “Private land. No parking”.

Women, Children and Loitering Men The Photographers’ Gallery, London, to September 20th

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