The world just cannot get enough of Shirley Baker, as her stunning photographs have an enduring quality that seems to get more enduring by the day...
The 2017 exhibition of photos at Manchester Art Gallery, Women and Children; and Loitering Men, was a massive success, with the third edition of the accompanying book selling out, repeating similar acclaim at the London Photographers' Gallery.
Previously, when the exhibition was shown in Madrid, there were no books left, despite it being shortlisted for a prestigious prize. That's Madrid. In Spain. Slobbering over images of Salford and Manchester back streets back in the days of cobbles, bombed out housing and scruffy kids playing in the apocalyptic landscapes of the wrecking ball. Incredible stuff. But it gets even more surreal...
"That was really nice, brilliant" says Shirley's daughter, Nan Levy, "Mum did all sorts of things in her lifetime that people aren't aware of. When I was young, she got half a dozen pictures in the Louvre in Paris. And I remember her and dad asking me to take them to the Tate in London. When I asked why, she said 'Well I've got one or two pictures in there'...
"Once I was working in Paris and she called me and said 'I know you're really busy darling but you're working in the Champs Elysees and I've got a few pictures in an exhibition not far from you; I understand if you don't have time'...It was amazing, she was being exhibited along with all these top New York photographers" Nan recalls "It was an exhibition on women and there were all these glamorous Vogue models and famous women of the time...and my mother's old wrinkly women scrubbing t'step, alongside all these nudes."
Four years ago, just before the latest surge in the popularity of the photos and her first totally solo show at the Photographer's Gallery, Shirley passed away and Nan is now dealing with the phenomenal legacy of her mother's work...
"When the History Press contacted me and asked to do a book on Manchester and Salford I was delighted because I was getting a phone call a week asking where people could buy a copy of the book" she says "I have selected my favourite, most moving pictures, a lot from that Women and Children; and Loitering Men show. Most are children at play, plus a few of the Manchester Docks, and the buildings and the cars, and I've told the story really."
The book, Without Trace: Manchester and Salford in the 1960s is out now, containing over one hundred photos that 'tell the story' of Salford and Hulme in the 1960s, capturing a community culture in the throes of being transformed. In the Intro, Nan quotes her mum's view on it all...
"Often when I came to a cleared site it was like standing on an empty stage; the actors had gone and there was nothing to show who they were or what the play had been about. Memories linger, but without some hint or trace of reality, they too die out and come to nothing. Perhaps these photographs will give substance to some of those memories..."
The last but one photo in the book shows a women in a headscarf trundling with her shopping through the derelict streets as the 'city in the sky' rises in the background.
At the Manchester Art Gallery show, Nan met some of the original kids who featured in the photos..."I was talking to the sisters from one of the pictures and they didn't like the fact that people were calling it the 'slum streets'. They never saw themselves as living in the slums. They said 'We loved our childhood, we were out all day playing in the summer holidays, we had a dress for best, there was always food on the table and we lived with lots of love in our family'."
So when she was the same age as the kids in the photos, was the daughter aware of her mother hitting the grimy areas and poor communities on the other side of town?
"No, I wasn't even aware where she had gone" Nan recalls "I was very, very young when she was 'compelled to go back to the streets' as she said. When my mum died, my dad wanted to put the house on the market so my sister, Anna, and I had to work hard to archive and move the work, and that's when I got to know it better and her favourites.
"When people have asked for exhibitions, I've had to rummage through them all and when you see the same prints coming up a few times you think 'She really liked this one because she's done a few versions of it'" Nan adds "It's been really interesting."
Shirley Baker is a true Salford star but the city's most famous photographer never really made it known that she was from Kersal..."I don't think I even knew until I started researching, because she always said she was born near Prestwich" says Nan "I grew up in Wilmslow and I never really got to know north Manchester very well. Even my grandparents had moved to Sale, so when I was born they lived in South Manchester. My job took me to London and I said I'd do it for a year but now, thirty years later, I'm still here."
But now, through the photos, that link with Salford and Manchester is indelible, as her mum's photos continue to excite generations old and new...
"A lot of people are drawn to them because they remind them of their own childhood, no matter which city they grew up in" Nan decides "So there's people in their fifties and sixties who have come up to me and said 'We used to have a swing like that in the doorway'; and others have come up and said 'Do you know what's under that tea towel? It's when they hung the budgerigar out to dry'...All those sorts of things.
"Also, a lot of people in Manchester were bringing their children and telling their kids the story of when they grew up" she adds "What is so amazing is when you consider the camera she used, and when you see the high res images that have been scanned from original vintage prints you zoom in and see more than you see on the actual photos."
And fans can't get enough of the shots. There's been a dozen exhibitions of Baker's work in the last two years alone, in venues from Blackpool to the South of France. And, as well as the Without Trace: Manchester and Salford in the 1960s collection, there's another Shirley Baker book called Dog Show being published at the end of October, with prints of owners and their dogs on display at the Manchester Dog Show, in the late Sixties and Seventies.
The people are almost as preened as the mutts, which didn't escape Shirley's eye. The two books are having a joint launch at Manchester Art Gallery in November, as the Baker phenomenon just grows and grows...
"It's such a shame that she's not here to see it" Nan laments "You work so hard to get your first photographs published and I do nothing, just answer the phone and people say 'Oh, can we do a book?...'"
Without Trace: Manchester and Salford in the 1960s (The History Press (£20)
Dog Show 1961-1978 (Hoxton Mini Press £14.95)
For more details on everything Shirley Baker see www.shirleybakerphotography.com
Previous Salford Star articles on Shirley Baker...
Shirley Baker Exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery – click here
Three Brothers Featured in Shirley Baker Photos Remember Ordsall – click here
Shirley Baker Exhbition Huge Success at Manchester Art Gallery – click here