9 Jul 2016

Shirley Baker: Snapping the Ordinary to Write Local History

Of my 16 years living and working in Manchester, England, my biggest regret is to have taken hardly any photos of the city itself, so caught up was I in my own life, and whenever I had a moment to snap away, it would be outside the city boundaries, down the scenic coast, up the Lakes, a nature preserve or a quaint photogenic Peak District village. Manchester didn't come to mind because I lived there, and I was of the opinion back then that photography had to be escapism from everyday life.

'Two Girls Swing on a Lamp Post', Hulme, 1965, photography by Shirley Baker, via The Photographers' Gallery

Thankfully some talented - yet unsung - individuals like Shirley Baker (1932-2014) have meticulously reported back from the nitty-gritty of the frontline. For it would be a great loss to local historians if the photography-enclined had all overlooked Manchester the way I did because then the fast-changing socio-economic fabric of this industrious mill city and its industrial demise followed by its reinvention as a service- and leisure-driven metropolis wouldn't have been captured and immortalised in this poignant visual exactitude that words fail to transcribe.

"If I could say it in words there would be no reason to paint." - Edward Hopper

Shirley Baker got late recognition in life for her work as a street photographer and photojournalist of the mundane, snapping street scenes, capturing life as it occurs, spontaneously, lived by the ordinary folks, not the celebs, not the royals, not the captains of industry. She was her own Robert Doisneau and Henri-Cartier Bresson, the latter she admired. She made it to the broadsheets (The Guardian and The Telegraph) obituaries when she sadly passed away, which is - I guess - a form of posthumous recognition of her art and talent.

'Women and Young girls out in the Street', Hulme, July 1965, ibid.

Meanwhile I am looking up to the Mancunians (the inhabitants of Manchester), who since the inception of the Industrial Revolution, from the rising of Cottonopolis to the post-industrial cultural errances of Madchester and beyond, have had to adapt to an ever-changing physical, social and financial landscape and show resilience, acceptance and adaptability to conditions forced upon them, and ultimately turn away from despondency, and turn adversity into opportunity in order to survive the transformation and earn a living within a reconfigured, unrecognisable city. I would sum it up this way: -

Manchester is - despite itself - a fascinating social laboratory and an architectural experiment that has explored - and keeps exploring - the good, the bad and the ugly. 

One of my personal observations that resulted into my 202-page University research paper about land planning management programmes in post-WWII Manchester, is how historically the northern city has been treating history: ruthlessly. This was accomplished along the years in a series of high-profile public, private and mixed land grabs and compulsory purchases repurposed as redevelopments, some of which badly needed (the slum clearances) and others of a more questionable nature. Redevelopments were/ are not solely limited to Manchester, for the blueprint was/ is applied to other major cities and their satellite towns.

As unconventional as I may sound, I  believe this is the way that Britain as a socio-economic collective deals with the past, and how this ruthlessness helps it move on. The nation refuses to dwell on the past too long for it refuses to become complacent and dictated to by nostalgia. It does however boast 500,000 Grade I and Grade II listed buildings, fondly and meticulously preserve traditions and memories (through, for instance, extensively-documented WWI and WWII commemorations, and lavish Royal protocoles), painstakingly curate ancient artefacts into museum collections, and document the past via specialist research and education institutes.

'Young Girls playing in the Street', Hulme, 1965, ibid.

Yet at the same time the nation's history shows how quick it is at making a clean slate out of, not just a couple of old buildings at a time, but large swathes of land, several streets at a time, that have been deemed ripe for redevelopment by a clique of office suits removed from life on the front line.

These drastic changes occur at the expense of the local communities that keep getting fractured, both externally and then internally, and lose their cohesion and identity, as the wards face their redundancy and economic fragility head on and their weakened state attracts social underdogs and castaways (drop-outs, thugs, drug dealers), who drag the wards down further through a climate of fear, before the bulldozers move in. The clearance of old housing stock started in the 1930s and resumed after WWII. Between 1955 and 1975, some 1.3 million homes were demolished nationwide to make way for modern accommodation with comfort and sanitation. However those came at a cost:-

"(...) 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.”- Shirley Baker

Let's bear in mind that Britain has been ruthlessly quick at wiping out its heavy industry and traditional manufacturing base over the last sixty years, leaving only a few traces here and there of its industrial past. And then the socio-economics that are linked to those sectors of employment have too been obliterated. In this 'sink or swim' environment, unless the locals move away altogether or retrain and relearn (which is not always possible), they become casualties, and long-term unemployment a fatality. Alvin Toffler's Future Shock springs to mind.

'Cycle Salesman', Hulme, 1965, via BBC

By making that clean slate, government officials, financiers, investors, economists, land planners, property developers, each contribute in effect, to directly or indirectly wipe out the architecture, culture, social fabric, heritage, legacy that root in the communities. The blue-collar workers, or what is left of them, are the social demographic most likely to be displaced within the city: the now-redundant factory workers and miners and their families, now either essentially workless and put under the patronage of the State through total Welfare dependency programmes for subsistence, or they take that post-industrial leap into unskilled low-paid service jobs, joining the ranks of the working poor.

"I cannot claim that my photographs represent anything other than a few wisps teased from some of the countless threads that form the intricate tapestry of our lives.” - Shirley Baker

On my last visit to Manchester 21 months ago with my mum, we drove through parts of East Manchester (namely Ancoats, Ardwick, Beswick, Gorton, Openshaw and Denton) and blimey, did I struggle to recognise anything! The last time I had driven down those areas had only been five years prior, in 2009... It seemed that what was left of the old industry-related (Victorian mills, depots, warehouses, sheds, traditional two-up two-down terraced houses and their end-terrace corner shops, workers clubs, stores, picture houses, small pubs, local banking institutions, etc.) had made way for sprawling housing estates, modernist tower blocks, supermarkets, shopping precincts, leisure centres, brand new roads and tram lines. I did not spot one major factory building still standing, apart fom the iconic Daisy Mill (now too due to be demolished!). The odd Victorian pub at a corner of Ashton Old Road or Ashton New Road would stand out as both the only tangible, significant landmark and witness of a bygone era. Everything else had been flattened out, reworked and retuned in a tabula rasa exercise that has been radically transforming those areas since the 1950s, first off as part of the extensive post-war slum clearance programme.

As an aside, I must point out that the reworked cityscape looks bland and non-descript, like one long stretch of identikit suburbia, punctuated with tower blocks, mile upon mile, and the end result looks - dare I say - un-British. Indeed it has lost its Britishness. These areas, where locals were once involved in the making of the nation's wealth through their hard relentless unrewarded labour, had remained poor. Yet 50 years ago, the locals were still able to hold a job that helped them raise a family and have a roof above their heads, no matter how humble the abode, without the charity of the State, and making do without resorting to detbt. They owed society nothing and their pride and self-esteem were theirs.

'Ice Cream Van on Terraced Street', July 1965, photography by Shirley Baker, via The Guardian

Nowadays, as contribution to the nation's wealth has been robbed from these people, these former workers' wards/ districts have become wards/ districts of passive - i.e. unproductive - consumerism. This model is replicated throughout our Western societies and this passive consumerism, detached from production and purpose, is the sign of a fractured society. Because having a purpose in life drives you. Having no purpose other than wait for the cheque from the social, while the world is passing you by, is no driver in itself.
 
Meanwhile Shirley's photographic legacy reminds us that there are no rose-tinted ways of viewing poverty, only compassion, through the respectful, non-intrusive intimacy which her eye and lens share with her subjects. It is a social documentary with a heart, the photographic labour of love about a labour force caught in the midst of times achanging.

Looking Back to Look Forward should have been a motto for Council chiefs, private sector entrepreneurs and their acolytes to apply to Manchester for its successful transition into the future, while taking into account the best elements from the past (including values) and the expectations of four generations of the population (from cradle to the grave, if you pardon me the phrase), with the design fitting their lives rather than the other way around. I believe in integrated sensible redevelopment, based on brand-new builds based on classical design, and renovations of designated buildings. I do not believe that redevelopment should require the utter obliteration of the wards.

Further Resources:

Further Reading List - about today's working poor in Britain:

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