​shirley baker: the first female street photographer

Documenting the landscape of post-war, post-apocalyptic, Manchester, Shirley Baker was a pioneer of female documentary photographers.

by Felix Petty
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22 May 2015, 8:25am

It's one of the arts' great travesties that the technological improvements in handheld cameras post-WW2 didn't lead to more female photographers, generally, and specifically, female photographers working as documentarians and photojournalists. If it led to a new genre of image making, of capturing live as it was lived, as a record of the times, it was denied a woman's eye.

Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank might've been the masters of the style, and Magnum the holy grail, but for photographers like Shirley Baker even getting a press card to cover events was a problem, which prevented her from seriously persueing the career in photojournalism her talent deserved. Undeterred she took her camera onto the streets.

Shirley Baker studied and grew up in Manchester, and graduated from Manchester College of Technology, before trying to get work as a photojournalist, and eventually settling down to document the scenes of the streets of Manchester, the city's crumbling working class districts in the process of being rebuilt after the war, and the impoverished suburbs of Hulme and Salford. Her photos though aren't misery memoir or poverty porn, instead capturing the poetry of everyday life, and the tigh-knit communities of the north east.

Thought to be the only female street photographer out documenting the life of the inhabitants of post-war Britain, her candid, funny, bleak and surreal images tell a tale of poverty, community and resilience, and The Photographer's Gallery is putting on the first major exhibition of her work, compiling 20 years of her images of Manchester (following on from a 2012 photobook) that will hopefully address her neglected place in the cannon. 

thephotographersgallery.org.uk