PHOTOGRAPHY AND THE HISTORICISM OF POVERTY: Shirley Baker at the Photographers' Gallery
Shirley Baker: Women, Children and Loitering Men
Photographers’ Gallery (until September 20 2015)
“Street photography” (more on that term later) has been around virtually since the invention of the medium and photographers have always turned their lenses towards the lower strata - working people of all kinds, street hawkers and vendors, urchins, pliers of the petits metiers, slum dwellings and dwellers, downtrodden women, child labourers, exploited immigrants and virtually every other variety of the poor in London, Paris, New York and most other large cities. For Susan Sontag, photography’s insatiable fascination with victims and the unfortunate has been ‘one of its most vigorous enterprises.’ What is it that leads photographers to be fascinated with the disadvantaged and viewers to be attracted to exhibitions such as the Photographers’ Gallery current show of Shirely Baker’s photographs of the working class areas in and around Manchester in the 1960s?
As it happens, Sontag also had a few things to say which might help. Photography actively promotes nostalgia and most subjects, after being photographed, are touched with pathos. The ugly becomes beautiful and the beautiful, worn by time, evokes pity. Frozen in time, all photographs testify to ‘time’s relentless melt’ and gain particular poignancy if they portray a historical moment of change or upheaval. They are incitements to reverie; the Paris of Atget and Brassai is gone for ever, ‘like the dead relatives and friends preserved in the family album…the photographs of neighbourhoods now torn down…supply our pocket relation to the past’.
It is hard to imagine a period of more disruptive change that that in which Shirley Baker (1932-2014) was active between the 1960s and ‘80s, when the sprawling slums of Manchester and Salford were being swept away but their residents were still waiting to be rehoused, stuck in dilapidated and decaying housing. Her photographs of loitering men, women in housecoats and scruffy children, against a backdrop of the mass rehousing which radically reshaped the urban landscape in many of England’s northern cities, came to define her distinctive vision. ‘My sympathies lay with the people who were forced to exist miserably, often for months on end, sometimes years, while demolition went on all around them’, she said. This exhibition shows her striving through her photography to ‘find the poetry’ in the lives of the women, children and unemployed men as their lives spill out into the street where they stand or sit, talking and passing the time, the children playing games and amusing themselves with makeshift games using lampposts, debris from demolition sites and deflated footballs.
Photographing Manchester and Salford in these years was Baker’s way of finding a route into photography in the face of professional obstacles. Born in Kersal, Salford, she studied photography at Manchester College of Technology in the 1950s. Union restrictions on female press photographers scuppered her ambitions to work for Guardian so she pursued for the next 55 years her own documentary projects in London, France, Japan and her home city. The exhibition brings to light rare images from the formative period of this career – many of which are previously unseen.
The documentary value of Baker’s photographs is immense. Accounts of the period by historians in the future cannot conceivably describe the material conditions of the lives of these people without consulting photography of this nature. I am less convinced that they provide clear readings of the responses of the people to their circumstances. Baker was close to the people in the photographs, sympathising with their plight. ‘Not since the photographs of the Farm Security Administration in America’, in the opinion of Colin Ford of the National Museum of Photography in Bradford, ‘have I seen someone photographing people in deprived states and getting so involved’. Well, yes and no. Involvement and advocacy was certainly an essential part of the documentary tradition of 1930s America generally. Many of the FSA photographers, as well as writers, dramatists and documentary makers of the period, were socially aware and committed, consciously highlighting social problems in the hope that solutions would be forthcoming. The work of these advocate-photographers was designed to expose problems and provoke responses. Their photographs are characterised by a full-frontal obviousness, material conditions and their effects on the people clearly exposed; these photographers wanted to leave no room for doubt, no ambiguity which might let public opinion, social reformers and legislators off the hook. Their aim, quite simply, was to expose the problem – poor housing, poverty, exploitative working conditions – and their subjects had to be portrayed as victims of such conditions. At its worst (think Margaret Bourke-White's over-emotionalised You Have Seen Their Faces of 1937 ) human agency is stripped from the victims who are portrayed as being buffeted by circumstances and have lost any fight.
Not all documentarists were of this ilk. By far the best photographer of the period, Walker Evans, maintained a cool detachment from the people he photographed – one of the reasons, perhaps, that he never got along with Roy Striker and why his tenure at the FSA was short-lived – and his images are the stronger for it. His laconic images lack this surface advocacy, his messages cloaked in nuance. Baker however was in the tradition of the advocate-photographer for whom subtles and possible ambiguities have to be avoided in the greater cause of exposing the social evil. Many (probably most) of her subjects appear posed, staring at the camera with a listlessness that they may or may not have felt but which helps reinforce the message. Some of her shots of children show them playing street games but I was surprised how many of these were also posed, the children seemingly standing around or looking lost or – in one particularly vivid example of victimhood – fishing in a street drain. I could not help comparing these images with those Roger Mayne took in Southam Street just a few years earlier – an equally poor area but in which people seem engaged, chance events and surprises in the street appear to have been captured and the children are constantly engaged in play and games which turn their circumstances to their advantage. There is in Mayne, as there is lacking in Baker, a sense of human agency.
Which brings us back to street photography. Professor Griselda Pollock’s Foreword to the exhibition catalogue speaks of Shirley Baker as a ‘street photographer’, ‘a wandering and acute observer of social spaces and their unexpected transactions and encounters’. This is surely a misreading or perhaps just a lazy recitation of commonplace tropes. It is true that the quest for the unexpected, chance and ‘found’ happenings is what distinguishes the street photographer from the documentarian – the ability to seize on that happenstance and reveal the human subjectivity which can often transcend circumstances. Inevitably though the result of the great street photographer it to present images of indeterminate and unknown outcomes, the chaos and plurality of human life revealed in a chance instance. The street photographer’s anamorphosis – look once see something, look again see something else – is anathema to the advocate-documentarist, who cannot afford the multiple possible interpretations which might cross with the “message” he/she wants to get across.
The poses of Baker’s subjects suggest more of a desire to expose the degrading effects of poor housing and other forms of deprivation, a portrayal of victims rather than human subjects. As time has passed the photographs then take on the nostalgic patina of time. The message inevitably finds a receptive audience in the liberal-minded contemporary generation of viewers. Nostalgia with a message – powerful stuff, but street photography it ain’t.
Copyright © All text and photography (other than where indicated) Alan Ainsworth Photography 2014.
Cite Alan Ainsworth, 'Photography and the historicism of poverty: Shirley Baker at the Photographers' Gallery', 29.08.15 available at http://www.alanainsworthphotography.com/blog/2015/8/photography-and-the-historicism-of-poverty-shirley-baker-at-the-photographers-gallery
Keywords: Exhibition reviews, Photography
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