Born in Salford, Shirley studied photography at Manchester College of Technology, starting out using a Box Brownie camera. She later went on to do courses at London Regent Street Polytechnic and London College of Printing.
After graduation, she worked as an in-house factory photographer at Courtaulds, the fabric manufacturer. Influenced by documentary photography, she took up freelance photography on magazines, books, periodicals and newspapers, producing work full of charm and irony. She also started lecturing at Salford College of Art and Manchester Polytechnic.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s she photographed a range of subjects, sparked by her interest in human behaviour and social injustice, such as her Dog Show photography, Blackpool Beach in 1970 and 1980s punks. But It is her spontaneous, mainly black and white photographs, of inner-city working-class communities in Salford and Manchester during the ‘slum’ clearances that have come to define her distinct vision and body of work.
‘What I was doing was about the people… I always ended up photographing the people. I knew that it was a time of enormous changes. What I did find was a great sense of humour… the sense of community, but that, of course, was gradually being broken up.’
Her recent Barbican exhibition ‘Postwar Modern – New Art in Britain 1945 – 1965’ features 14 of Shirley’s street photographs, including early Kodachrome colour work from 1965.
Her archive is managed by her daughter Nan Levy and her work is also available at The Photographers Gallery.
By Paula Vellet
Street Photography, 1989 – Available from Abe Books
Dog Show 1961-1978 – Available from Hoxton Mini Press and the Martin Parr Foundation
Without a Trace, 2018 – Available from Abe Books
Shirley Baker, 2019 – Available from Sentanta Books