An exhibition of photos by ‘social documentary’ photographer Shirley Baker, showing at the Photographers’ Gallery in London until 12 September, depicts Manchester and Salford during the housing clearances of the 1960s and 70s.
After the first few black and white shots of scruffy children playing on derelict streets, I was thinking I’d seen plenty enough. But a series of photos taken in Hulme, a suburb of Manchester, provided some lighter fare, perhaps simply because they are in colour and a touch more varied but more likely because her subjects seem more cheerful, as if the photographer has brought some spring sunshine into their grimy lives.
My indifference melted, I was ready for the remaining ranks of black and white images. Children fill up most of the frames, though some feature women, often large and pinafored like Les Dawson in his northern battleaxe drag outfit. Fewer men appear. They are frequently solitary, seated for a portrait. We sense they have the leisure of the unemployed.
A photo meriting more than a few moments’ contemplation shows a boy in Salford, 1964. Broken glasses are slipping down his face. An especially tiny boy stands on steps behind him, facing sideways and staring intently at something. He is quite cute in a first-day-at-school way. I can’t be the only person who liked this shot: I later discovered it was chosen for a record sleeve by a band called The Jazz Devils.
The perspective is not always wide enough to add deep context. Yes, we can see these people are poor, but we ought to know that anyway. More revealing are the photos in which we can see tower blocks rising behind terraced housing. We’re forced to consider the demolition of these humble but still cherished terraces and their replacement by soulless blocks which will bring their own sets of social problems in the years to come.
The question of photography as an art form continues to nag me. At what point does a photo graduate from illustrating a journalist’s words to earning its keep on a gallery wall? So I was interested to read Shirley Baker quoted in a newspaper article on display:
“If there is any art in photography, it surely lies in the ‘candid’ snapshot… opportunities for this kind of photography are unlimited”
It seems spending time with people in their environments, time that you would need if you want take a large number of photos and gain the trust of the subject, yields the possibility of a compelling and timeless image. Note in her modesty (“If there is any art in photography…”) the hint of doubt about photography’s status. Photography’s power lies in getting as close as you can to the heart of the subject, and that way too lies its art.