Shirley Baker (1932-2014, born in Kersal, Salford) received her first camera from her uncle at the age of 8, which ignited her lifelong passion for photography. Although there were very few opportunities to formally train as a photographer - particularly as a woman - in the early 1950s, Baker obtained a degree from the Manchester College of Technology in ‘Pure Photography’. Not long after this, however, she abandoned plans to work as press photographer for the Manchester-based Guardian newspaper altogether, claiming she would spend a long time “unlearning what [she] had learnt on the course” . At that time photography was still very much considered a technological process as opposed to an artistic one, so Baker chose instead to pursue self-initiated and open-ended projects shot over several years, as a “free-spirited photographic recorder” .
Perhaps the most comprehensive and renowned is of these projects is her documentation of post-war slum clearing programmes in Manchester and Salford in the 1960s and 70s, and the affect on the lives of the districts’ inhabitants. This formative body of work was celebrated in the major touring solo exhibition Shirley Baker: Women and Children; and Loitering Men, which opened shortly after her passing in 2014.
During her 55-year career Baker produced an extensive oeuvre exploring themes from dog shows, to punk culture, and beachside leisure. She never stopped photographing, and ultimately forged her own voice within British post-war documentary photography as a compassionate, patient, and gently humorous teller of human stories.
Former TPG Curator of Women and Children; And Loitering Men, Anna Douglas, spoke of Baker’s use of a Rolleiflex camera – into which the photographer has to look down into – meaning her face was never fully obscured: “[Baker] has visual and facial contact with people, she is fully present…she has an engagement with people.”  Children in particular loved the prospect of being photographed, and would eagerly approach Baker and beg to be the subjects of her documentation as they played and ran riot in the cobbled streets of their neighbourhoods.
“These are my pictures, they are the observations of one person and they tell only a fraction of the story…” – Shirley Baker
On the nearby beaches of Southport, Blackpool and North Wales, however, she shot more covertly. Baker’s photographs from the late 1960s and early 1970s capture the rituals of sand and sun-seekers, whether splashing in the shallows with a bucket and spade, riding a donkey, or catching 40 winks on a deck chair after lunch. Though her subjects are still very much the people that flock to these beaches, Baker's focus on light and composition within these frames reflects her desire to exercise her artistic eye within her photographic practice, in addition to her important documentary work.
“Baker’s gaze alights kindly on her subjects, never sending them up for a cheap laugh. Her photographs of fathers playing with the children in sand and sea are singularly touching…” – Anna Douglas
To celebrate the start of the summer and Britons' triumphant - yet cautious - return to local beaches post-lockdown, transcribed below from an essay written at the time are Shirley Baker's top tips for photographers shooting on the beach:
1) Do avoid fussy, distracting backgrounds. A small lens aperture is needed on the beach and in bright sunshine and as this extends the range of sharpness, the background can sometimes be almost as sharply in focus as the subject of the picture. A raising or lowering of viewpoint can help to eliminate unwanted detail in the background. On the beach, for examples, the background can be plain sand, from a high viewpoint, or the sky, from a low one.
2) Do get close and fill the frame. Dots on the horizon are of no interest to anyone, whether at Santa Margarita or Southend.
3) Do play it cool. If you see an interesting situation developing, creep up and catch Dad unawares.
4) Don’t be afraid to shoot against the sun. Sometimes the most sparkling pictures result from this kind of lighting.
5) Do remember to increase the exposure by at least a stop, if detail is required in the shadows, when shooting into the light.
6) Finally, don’t forget about the disastrous effects of sand and sea water on photographic equipment. Before picking up the camera, make sure your hands are sand free. Also, use polythene bags for storing the camera and any other bits and pieces of equipment when they are not being used.
“Pen F 1⁄2 frame camera, 100mm lens. FP4 film. 1/250 f/11. A family paddle at Blackpool. The pier in the background identifies the scene but is not obtrusive because of the haze in the distance which has softened the outlines.”
“Pen F 1⁄2 frame 10mm lens. FP4 film.1/250 f/8”. A sunbather who was obviously preparing herself for a glamorous night out. The 100mm telephoto lens and small unobtrusive 1⁄2 frame Pen F camera were an invaluable combination for a candid shot like this."
“Rolleiflex camera, Planar lens. TRI x film. 1/500 f/11. These kids were playing on the beach in the late afternoon when the tide had gone out. They were hurling spadefuls of sand into a pool of water left by the tide and after a short time became so preoccupied that they completely forgot about me and my camera. That’s when I took the picture.”
Signed and annotated vintage or modern prints direct from Shirley Baker’s Estate are available for acquisition from £1,500 + VAT. Enquire directly by clicking on the images above, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
See further work by Shirley Baker here.
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Alexandra Olczak, Print Sales Curator & Sales Advisor
Sources & Further Reading:
[1, 3] Curator Anna Douglas discusses the exhibition Shirley Baker: Women and Children; and Loitering Men (17 Jul-20 Sep 2015), the first London exhibition to present work by the pioneering British photographer: https://vimeo.com/134618902
 Essay by Anna Douglas in the exhibition catalogue, Shirley Baker: Women and Children; and Loitering Men (published by The Photographers' Gallery, 2015), p.150-161