In an interview with the Guardian in 2012, British photographer Shirley Baker recalls the urban clearances in Manchester and Salford that became the focus of her work from the 1960s onwards: “There was so much destruction: a street would be half pulled down and the remnants set on fire while people were still living in the area.” The photographs that resulted might have focused on the architectural upheaval of the time – the rubble heaps and broken buildings with coal black bricks – and some did, but Baker mainly chose to use this as a backdrop for the social aspect of what was happening, turning her lens on the people the clearances were impacting. Capturing scenes of poverty, but also resilience, Baker documented the values and experiences of working class communities in photographs that were meticulously-timed responses to spontaneous moments.
Women and Children; and Loitering Men is an exhibition of Baker’s work at Manchester Art Gallery (previously at The Photographers’ Gallery in London): organised in narrative and thematic strands, the photographs are set to a specially commissioned soundscore of noises from the streets alongside Baker’s voice from a 1922 interview, arranged by Derek Nisbet. The exhibition also includes a series of colour photographs that have never before been exhibited, having remained unprinted in Baker’s archive since they were taken in 1965; displayed in a separate gallery, the images depict children playing on a rubble heap, an elderly couple picking their way across a post-clearance landscape. They evidence Baker’s experimentation with colour married with her ambition to document “the mundane, even trivial aspects of life not being recorded by anyone else” – to stunning effect.