Photography highlight: Shirley Baker

I came across the photographer Shirley Baker through my research into childrenswear of the 20th century. Her street photography in the working-class neighbourhoods of 1950s Manchester strikes at something essential in my exploration of nostalgia. Despite the vastly different landscape – the slum clearances, the visible poverty, the overcrowding – these photographs are instantly relatable. The attitudes and movements of the children at play, the way the mothers stand in relation to each other, the way the sunlight falls.

The feel of dry dirt and grass under you in the heat of summer, brushing your calves off when you stand up.
The excitement of hearing an ice cream van two street away, the frantic boredom of wanting to get on when your parents have stopped to talk with someone in the street.
My childhood was so different to that pictured in these photographs in many important ways but I can still relate so strongly to them, relive the corresponding moments from my memories, both real and embellished.


Shirley Baker did an excellent interview with the Tate in 2013, connecting her work to that of another artist I love, L.S. Lowry. She said,

A lot of people collected Lowry prints because they reminded them of where they were. It was nostalgia. I hate that word! Though I do understand feelings about past memories. Nostalgia comes later and at that time I was working in the present, and so was Lowry. The other important thing to remember was that many of the people lived in dreadful conditions and their houses had to be pulled down. Then of course, when they built up the new stuff, it wasn’t very long before they pulled all that down too.

If her point is that nostalgia is overused, I do agree with that. But I think it’s still just such a useful word for encompassing the wistfulness, the desperation, the joy, the warmth and the regret of memory. At the same time, she reminds us of something important: nostalgia can be whitewashing and unproductive. These beautifully photogenic slums, captured on a beautiful sunny day in the dreamy saturation of Kodachrome, picture a community that needed and deserved change. The change it got was ruinous. These pictures don’t show that, just as we shy away from undesirable memories.

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