BEST IN SHOW

PHO­TOG­RA­PHER SHIRLEY BAKER CAP­TURES THE VERY HU­MAN STO­RIES AT AN EVENT DE­VOTED TO AN­I­MALS, WITH DIS­TINC­TIVE WIT AND HU­MOUR

The Simple Things - - THINK - Pho­tog­ra­phy: MARY EVANS PIC­TURE LI­BRARY

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

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