Shirley Baker Saw Nuance and Humanity in England’s Elderly - ELEPHANT

As many of the country’s older adults face ongoing isolation, one London gallery is showing the British artist’s iconic images, which depict those in public spaces as spirited, individual and full of character.

Shirley Baker, Manchester (Man with Pigeons), 1967
Shirley Baker, Manchester (Man with Pigeons), 1967

The sight of anyone hanging around on a park bench, let alone some of the local community’s most vulnerable, is a rare one these days. In the year of social distancing and months-long isolation of countless seniors, many avoid our public spaces. But it hasn’t always been that way.

Shirley Baker, the British photographer known for her piercing street photography from the 1960s onwards, explored the working class communities of Manchester and Salford throughout her career. James Hyman Gallery is currently showing her iconic black and white photographs and a selection of rare colour images online. Shirley Baker: A Different Age features people snoozing on wooden benches, playing instruments in the street, browsing shops and engaging with a host of animals­: from domestic cats to giant Shire horses.

Shirley Baker, Manchester Dog Show, c.1965
Shirley Baker, Manchester Dog Show, c.1965

Nan Levy, Baker’s daughter, co-curated the show with James Hyman. “We are now starting to see the easing of the lockdown and with that we can begin to step outside, enjoy the sunshine and play sport,” she says. “Sadly our elderly folk are still advised to stay safe at home; unable to see their loved ones or enjoy simple pleasures such as going to the park.”

While these images might seem particularly poignant during lockdown, they hint at a community feel in England that faded long before 2020. It is a country that often sees domestic separation across generational lines, and as its big cities become faster-paced and more built up, the opportunities for meaningful communal experiences are reduced.

“Sadly our elderly folk are still advised to stay safe at home; unable to see their loved ones or enjoy simple pleasures”

Baker depicts older people as nuanced and full of character, variously fun-seeking, tough, glamorous or thoughtful. These images see the human within, and communicate the urgent need for those of all ages to be recognized as a vital part of society. Her subjects often seem unaware of her presence, lost in their own moment, and happily at one with their surroundings.

With lockdown an ongoing reality for many, and the disgraceful governmental neglect of the UK’s care homes in the midst of a nationwide pandemic, the future does not look positive for our most experienced generations. In the years to come, we must re-engage with the kind of loving humanity that Baker saw in her subjects.




Shirley Baker: A Different Age

Until 24 July, James Hyman Gallery online

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