Shirley Baker: ‘Women, Children and Loitering Men’ Review

Shirley Bakers ‘Women, Children and Loitering Men’ solo show at The Photographers Gallery felt like a trip back in time as you are confronted with black and white prints of children playing in the streets in the 1950’s, accompanied by the sounds of footsteps and children playing. From the moment you entered the exhibition there was a sense of physically occupying the scenes the images depicted, like you were experiencing the scene or have a sense of being in that environment before. It gives a sense Bakers personality as you are also greeted with a large quote on the opposite wall than is written in a very serious red tone “My sympathies lay with the people who were forced to exist miserably, often for month on end, sometimes years, whilst demolition went on all around them”. This quote speaks of the physical demolition around them due to the War but also to the emotional disintegration her subjects must have experienced.

An inclusion to the display, rare in most photographic exhibitions, was the noticeable inclusion of sound; children laughing in the first room and footsteps as well as church bells in the last room. The viewers are immersed into the atmosphere that Baker would have felt as she took these photos, you are literally put into the shoes of the photographer and her subjects. At first I wasn’t totally convinced by it but as I walked around the exhibition with the faint sounds whispering around the rooms, it affected me emotionally and therefor grew on me.

A glass cabinet in the centre of the room displayed some of Bakers achievements over the years; these included features in newspapers and magazines. One of these magazines, Amateur Photography issued in 1970, described Baker as a photographer who “goes on a camera safari”. A humorous yet accurate observation as Baker seems to have a knack for roaming the streets of Northern cities, documenting the youth. However children were not her only subjects as young to middle aged women were also photographed as well as “loitering men” as the title of the exhibition informs us. This is so Baker could accurately explore the social backdrop of the slums in which her photographs are set.

A slight critique of the exhibition would be that whilst it was mainly black and white images displayed, there were a few coloured images dotted around between the middle room and the last room. These images could were either people going about their daily life or some graffiti on walls. Whilst I adore the use of colour to show realism, the images should have shown a gradual movement to colour, leaving these images to the last room perhaps rather then just dotting the images about. I did not find these colour graffiti images to add anything to the exhibition, as they just didn’t fit with the theme and style of the display. However, it could now be seen as a foreshadowing of what was to come in Bakers career as after years of photographing and revisiting the streets of Salford and Manchester, Baker moved to London and began to photograph the emerging punk scene of Camden in the 80’s. It seems like a big jump in theme, but Baker’s documentary style of documenting the ordinary (or for other perhaps unordinary) lives of others.

Reviews for ‘Women, Children and Loitering Men’ are almost entirely positive. Time Out, a magazine and online publishing company, gave the exhibition a 4/5 star rating and writer Freire Barnes summed up the short review beautifully in the last sentence as Bakers posthumous exhibition as being “Honest and poetic work that reveals the resilience of human nature.” To which I agree with as descriptions of Bakers word emphasizes her love of poetry in everyday interactions. I would add that not only is her work poetical but also photographically sound as she perfectly demonstrated the lengths that documentary photography can go in such a landscape.

I felt this exhibition really celebrated the significance and impact of women in photography, I am glad The Photographers Gallery has chosen to celebrate the life and work of such an innovative woman, I credit them for expressing Baker’s work so beautifully and of course I express my admiration for Shirley Baker herself, for her contribution to Photography.

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