Born in Kersal, Lancashire in 1932, Baker is today recognized as one of the preeminent British photographers of the post war period, and one of a very small number of women street photographer in post-war England. Beginning her work in the late 1950s her pictures reveal the legacy of Bill Brandt's pioneering study of The English at Home (1938) and the Picture Post magazine photo stories of Bert Hardy, Grace Robertson, Thurston Hopkins and others. Based in the streets of Manchester and Salford, Baker's photographs also provide a northern counterpart for the type of street photography practised in London at the same period by Roger Mayne, which also saw a focus on children. However Baker's photography has a particular, individual quality that distinguishes her work and her sensitivity to her subjects.
After studying photography at Manchester College of Technology, Baker initially pursued a career as photographer at the Guardian. This proved difficult at a time when photography was considered a job limited to men. In 1960 Baker began teaching at Salford College of Art, during this time she started documenting the urban clearance programmes of inner-city Manchester and Salford.
Baker's humanist documentary work allows an intimate look on the daily life of working class communities during the 1960s and up to the late 1970s. The black and white images find their visual power in the layers of their composition. The juxtaposition between the half-demolished grim backgrounds and the subject matter, mostly children playing and women daily life, allow an emphatic engagement. Through her devotion to a rightful representation of her subjects, allowing a level of humour in her images, Baker's photography grants visibility to the resilience of human spirit at a time of radical change for working-class communities in Northern England.
Hampered by the denial of a role for women in a man-lead industry, Baker's contribute to photography was not recognized until recent years. Her work was exhibited in multiple group exhibitions such as the Observers: British Photography and the British Scene, at the Serviço Social da Ind(SESI), SPaulo in 2012; Looking Outwards at the Oldham Gallery in Manchester in 2013; and the major exhibition: Shirley Baker. Women, Children and Loitering Men, The Photographers' Gallery, London 2015 (and tour).