BEST IN SHOW
PHOTOGRAPHER SHIRLEY BAKER CAPTURES THE VERY HUMAN STORIES AT AN EVENT DEVOTED TO ANIMALS, WITH DISTINCTIVE WIT AND HUMOUR
When the ‘First Exhibition of Sporting and Other Dogs’ (with classes for 22 different breeds) was held at Manchester’s Belle Vue Zoological Gardens in 1861, it was as an adjunct to the main event – a poultry show. Dog shows were in their infancy; the first documented was in Newcastle just two years earlier. But, by the turn of the century, dog shows had gained a following, and respectability, thanks to the rise of dog breeding as a hobby within fashionable society and particularly among women.
Just over a century after that first Manchester show, a young photographer roamed the halls and arenas of Belle Vue with her camera and a feeling that ‘doggy people’ would prove fertile subject matter. Shirley Baker (1932–2014), brought up in Manchester, was best known for her pictures documenting the communities in her home city on the cusp of seismic social change. She began to work in a documentary style on personal projects, giving up ambitions to work at The Guardian, as union rules restricted women working as press photographers.
In visiting Manchester Dog Show, Shirley Baker was very much an »
outsider looking in, and it quickly becomes clear that rather than the dogs alone, it was the owners, and their interaction with each other and their dogs, that fascinated her. She first visited in 1961 and returned several times.
Some pairings give credence to the old adage that, occasionally, humans and pets resemble one another. As terriers and toy dogs are fluffed and fussed into showready perfection, their grooming is eclipsed by the bouffant beehives of the groomers themselves. Among the many visual puns are glorious moments of synchronicity, coincidental juxtapositions such as the little girl, tearful with stage fright, and dwarfed by the St Bernard lumbering beside her.
Shirley found just as much inspiration away from the show ring, as she wandered among the rows of cubicles in which dogs and their keepers waited for their turn in the spotlight. Dogs snooze and snore while owners sip tea and gossip, or simply wait alongside their faithful friends, in patient and companionable routine.
When it comes to doggy people, women are in the majority – a domination stretching back to the ladies who took up dog fancying in the 19th century. There are, of course, men, but it is the women, business-like and formidable in tweed skirts and Sunday-best hats, whose faces, with their grim determination, we find hard to forget. Just as Shirley’s street photographs pay subconscious homage to the matriarchs and young mothers of 1960s Manchester, here, at the dog show, is proof that man’s best friend is just as likely to be woman’s. »
Dalmatian, Manchester Dog Show, 1966
Australian Terrier, dog show at Platt Fields Park, Manchester, 1970
Whippets, Manchester Dog Show, 1966