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On Seeing Ghosts

When I first saw this image on the National Gallery of Australia’s website, I wasn’t quite sure who, or what, I was seeing (fig. 1). What is the shadowy form lurking in the bottom-left-hand-corner of the image? Is it a person emerging out of the basement, a playful photographic superimposition, or something more banal: just another painting propped in the corner?

Pegg Clarke, Untitled (Portrait of a male painter)
Fig. 1. Pegg Clarke, Untitled (Portrait of a male painter, person looking from lower left of composition), gelatin silver photograph, 1920s. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

I like to imagine this work as a self-portrait in which Pegg Clarke plays the part of the ghost, ready to trouble the monumental figure of the male painter who stands self-assured, brushes and paint tube in hand, seemingly oblivious to the ghostly presence at his heels. I like to imagine that the photograph is a crafty critique of the gender and cultural hierarchies in Australia at the time: the relative subordination of the female artist to the male, of photography to painting. “Boo!” she announces: “I’m hee-re!”

But where exactly is she, this ghost of Australian women photographers past? And where are her archives?

I didn’t at first realize what a powerful metaphor this photograph offers for what it means to research late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Australian women’s photography. For many of these women, theirs is not a “shadow archive” but a shadowed archive: lost to the passage of time, difficult to locate, fragmentary, or overshadowed by the archives of male contemporaries. With the exception of a few well-known portrait and art photographers whose archives are substantial—such as May and Mina Moore, Olive Cotton, and Margaret Michaelis—it is a landscape of ghostly remainders, fragments, and gaps.[1] In such an archivescape the researcher is compelled to engage in acts of speculation and what Saidiya Hartman has termed, in a different historical and archival context, “critical fabulation.”[2] As Achille Mbembe observes, the “status” of the archive is not only a material but an “imaginary one,” by which he means the archive is “always situated outside its own materiality, in the story it makes possible.”[3]

Sometimes, after hours of fruitless catalog searches in state and municipal archives, unanswered emails, and false leads, I felt like giving up the proverbial ghost. Many of the state and municipal institutions in Australia that house extensive photography collections from the early decades of the twentieth century do not catalogue items under search terms such as “women photographers” or “street photography.” When I searched for the former through the image catalogue of the State Library of New South Wales, the search returned lots of women in photographs, but few women photographers. I knew there had to be more in there—but it was hard to find them.

Ghost in the Frame

Pegg Clarke is one figure who has haunted my imagination since 2018, when I embarked on a year-long project to uncover lesser-known women photographers working during the period 1900 to 1950. I was particularly keen to identify women who were exploring photographic genres other than, or in addition to, studio portraiture. Clarke was a successful studio, portrait, and art photographer who was active in Melbourne, Victoria, from the 1910s through to the 1950s. Today, only a few of her prints are held in public archives, and hardly any scholarly research has been published on her as a result.[4] Clarke exhibited work regularly in Melbourne, and had some international recognition. For example, her evocative print “Mist in the Mountains” was featured in the 1921 London Salon of Photography, and “was the only work by an Australian woman to be reproduced in the catalogue of the 1924 Australian Salon of Photography” (Miles, Language of Light, 63). Some of her local exhibitions were ambitious in scale, such as the solo show featuring 104 prints held at the Athenaeum Gallery in Melbourne in December 1932.[5]

Most of the prints in the 1932 exhibition featured photographs that were taken while Clarke was travelling through Europe in 1927 and 1928 with her friend, the artist Dora L. Wilson.[6] Consistently described as a pictorialist, there are many hints that suggest to me that Clarke’s photography at times engaged a more syncretic approach, combining elements of pictorialism with the new, or modern, photography. Titles in the catalogue including “Junk” (Australia), “Poles and Shadows” (Australia), and “The Open Door” (Belgium) suggest an interest in abstract approaches and vernacular subject matter that was rare in Australian photography at the time. Yet none of these images are locatable—they are likely lost or, in a more optimistic version of events, held in a private collection somewhere. They might be mixed up with other prints, and perhaps an old letter or two, in an Arnott’s biscuit tin in a thrift store somewhere along Brunswick Street, Melbourne. But all I can see are the titles, and what these works look like in my imagination.

Taken in the late 1920s, these photographs predate by several years Olive Cotton’s modernist treatment of the everyday in now famous works such as “Tea Cup Ballet” (ca. 1935). Other studies by Clarke, such as “Tree Shadows, Fuenterrabia” (ca. 1927–1928), which is reproduced in Barbara Hall and Jenni Mather’s important study on early Australia women’s photography, also indicate her experimentation with modernist aesthetics (see Australian Women Photographers, 68).[7]

Reading reviews of Clarke’s exhibitions, it’s clear that she was a photographer of considerable repute.[8] Exhibition catalogues indicate that she had a diverse and substantial oeuvre. Today, the most extensive, publicly accessible collections of her work are nine prints held at the National Gallery of Australia (mainly art photography in the pictorialist tradition), and twenty-one prints of mostly landscape and commercial photography held at the State Library of Victoria.[9] In Australian Women Photographers, Hall and Mather state that some of Clarke’s photographs are held in private collections in Australia and overseas (69). Like the apparition in the corner of figure 1, only a very small part of the whole remains, or can be seen. I’m reminded of the photographic portrait of May Watkis, a Canadian film administrator and projectionist, described by Kate Saccone in a recent essay in the Visualities forum; the archive’s incomplete and “contradictory evidence” of Watkis’s creative labor seems encapsulated, as Saccone says, in the way she appears “locked in her portrait, shadowed by her hat—refus[ing] to look at [us].”

During the course of my research in 2018, a persistent question arose: what can one do with the work of an historically significant photographer whose visual archive is little more than a series of scraps and fragments? Or the reverse problem: what can one do with the archive of an obscure, or unidentified, photographer, when there is little or no context within which to situate the work? For many decades, modernist studies has championed epistemological uncertainty as a defining feature of the modernist temper and many of its representative texts. However, it seems to me that we are still grappling to find sufficiently supple and creative ways of negotiating the epistemological uncertainty that attends some modern/ist visual archives: archives that could reshape aspects of that cultural history.

Ghost Outside the Frame

Here’s another iteration of Clarke’s ghost inside—or rather outside—the frame: a photographer whose work at times thematizes the uncanny and the ambiguous ontology of the photographic trace (fig. 2).

E. G. Shaw, St James Station under construction
Fig. 2. E. G. Shaw, St James Station under construction, nitrate negative, ca. 1920. Image courtesy of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, FL3192941.

By sheer happenstance, my research assistant on the project, Meg Brayshaw, discovered a collection of approximately 200 digitized negatives by a photographer called E. G. (Eleanor Georgina) Shaw at the State Library of New South Wales (SLNSW).[10] With the exception of Alan Davies, the past Curator of Photography at the SLNSW, and Megan Martin, the Head of Collections and Access at Sydney Living Museums, no one had been aware of Shaw’s remarkable shadowed archive. This work is shadowed in the sense that it is hidden, buried within a larger collection relating to the Royal Australian Historical Society (more on that below). You can only locate Shaw’s work through the SLNSW catalog if you already know her name—but her name was precisely the thing that had disappeared into obscurity.

Shaw’s interests were very specific: to preserve on film the changing palimpsest that is the city. From the mid-1910s to the mid-1930s, Shaw documented Sydney’s streets, its architecture, historic buildings, and the gradual modernization of the city (figs. 3-5).

E. G. Shaw, “This small block of land, next to George Hotel"
Fig. 3. E. G. Shaw, “This small block of land, next to George Hotel, was owned by a strict church woman, who would not sell to J. C. Williamson Ltd. So an Italian made an excellent living selling fruit and tickets to Theatre patrons” (Shaw’s note), nitrate negative, 1923. Image courtesy of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, FL3196393.
E. G. Shaw, Southeast corner Grosvenor and Kent Streets
Fig. 4. E. G. Shaw, Southeast corner Grosvenor and Kent Streets, nitrate negative, c. 1923. Image courtesy of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, FL3207624.
E. G. Shaw, West side, from intersection of Gloucester Street
Fig. 5. E. G. Shaw, West side, from intersection of Gloucester Street (The Rocks), nitrate negative, ca. 1923–27. Image courtesy of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, FL3206589.

I picture Shaw wearing understated clothes and practical shoes as she carted around her photographic equipment, intent on capturing the overlooked, the soon-to-be buried. I have to imagine what Shaw looked like because I haven’t located a single photograph of her: in a real sense, she ghosts her images; she’s the ghost outside the frame. Public records indicate that she was working class, a fact that makes her amateur photographic career more remarkable still. Born in Melbourne in 1870, she was married, had one son, and lived in Leichhardt (a then working-class, immigrant, inner-city suburb of Sydney), until her death in 1954. We know that for a time she was a general servant at the same asylum in Leichhardt where her husband was employed as a hospital attendant.[11] Unlike Clarke, Shaw most likely had no formal training in the arts or photography. At least one of Shaw’s negatives at the SLNSW is dated as early as 1916.

It’s remarkable that a working-class woman in her mid-forties was undertaking the kind of urban, architectural, and street photography that she was, as there was no artistic or cultural framework for such work in Australia at the time. That she took pride in her photography and approached it as a vocation is indicated by several factors. She inscribed many of her negatives with the signature “E. G. Shaw”; she was also, along with fellow photographer Josephine Foster, a founding member of the Royal Australian Historical Society’s (RAHS) “Photographic Section” from 1922.[12] She regularly donated her photographs to the RAHS and possibly other organizations, and in 1941, at the age of seventy, she donated 211 nitrate negatives to the Society.[13]

E. G. Shaw, Old houses in Gloucester Street
Fig. 6. E. G. Shaw, Old houses in Gloucester Street, nitrate negative, ca. 1925. Image courtesy of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, FL3190405.
 E. G. Shaw, “Oatlands,” Dundas, Dining Room
Fig. 7. E. G. Shaw, “Oatlands,” Dundas, Dining Room, nitrate negative, 1927. Image courtesy of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, FL3193489.
E. G. Shaw, “Oatlands,” Dundas, Door
Fig. 8. E. G. Shaw, “Oatlands,” Dundas, Door on left leads to the original home, nitrate negative, 1927. Image courtesy of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, FL3193485.

I think of Shaw as Australia’s answer to Eugène Atget, crafting visual meditations on empty streets and alleyways, as well as doorways and staircases (figs. 6-8). Indeed, some of Shaw’s most striking photographs stage her entrance into historic houses and estates, including “Oatlands” in Dundas and “Menevia” in Balmain, during the 1920s and 1930s. Access to such properties would have been restricted, so it’s likely that she undertook such assignments for the RAHS, which worked, among other activities, to document and protect historic Sydney. Many of these images adopt an almost forensic gaze on the domestic spaces they capture, which sometimes appear more akin to museums than homes (fig. 9).

E. G. Shaw, “Greystanes,” Prospect, Entrance Hall
Fig. 9. E. G. Shaw, “Greystanes,” Prospect, Entrance Hall, nitrate negative, 1927. Image courtesy of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, FL484705.

Like Atget’s documents of Paris, these images are eerily, hauntingly resonant (figs. 10-11). They offer up, like the photographic surface itself, “a palimpsest, a repository of mysterious remains.”[14]

Eugène Atget, Coin rue de Seine, 1924
Fig. 10. Eugène Atget, Coin rue de Seine, 1924. Bibliothèque nationale de France. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Eugène Atget, Paris Interior, ca. 1910
Fig. 11. Eugène Atget, Paris Interior, ca. 1910. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In “A Short History of Photography,” Walter Benjamin describes Atget as a “poor and unknown” virtuoso of photography who, in seeking “the forgotten and the forsaken,” transformed our relationship to the everyday and the city by showing us the modern city beyond its “exotic, ostentatious, romantic” aura.[15] Atget is routinely championed as a father of modern photography and a precursor to surrealism, but the work of Shaw—still unknown and uncelebrated—bears striking similarity to Atget’s. Shaw, like Atget, rejected modernity’s privileging of the new, the iconic, the monumental, and orderly, in favor of the old, the messy, and the obscure. And her photography invites a different and distinctly modern way of looking at the ordinary: one that estranges the viewer from familiar environments, spaces, and objects.

Of course, Shaw would not have been familiar with Atget’s photography. It was not until 1926, well into Shaw’s career, that some of Atget’s pictures were first published in La Révolution surréaliste.[16] The fact that I’m comparing and, in a sense, reading Shaw’s work through the lens of Atget (pardon the pun) illustrates that I can’t stop myself from seeing Shaw’s images though the powerful imprint of that Eurocentric, male-centric history. But Shaw’s photographs demonstrate how excavating little-known archives and collections offers opportunities to rethink the dominant histories of modernism. Far from the geographical and cultural centers of European modernism, Shaw was doing similar work to Atget in the modern city of Sydney—and, beyond the context of the Royal Australian Historical Society, it seems that she did this quite independently.

The lack of any discursive record through which one might better understand or contextualize Shaw’s work is another reason why I’m prompted to draw comparisons to Atget. I haven’t been able to trace so much as one letter, one anecdote, that can tell me something about her or her reflections on her photographic practice. It’s possible that there are some documents buried in the archive at the Royal Australian Historical Society or elsewhere, but none have yet surfaced. In the case of Shaw—like Clarke and, I’m sure, many others—historical neglect has led to a lack of archival development—and these incomplete, recalcitrant archives result, in turn, in a lack of scholarship.

So, I have to speculate, to weave stories, and wrestle with the partial disclosures that constitute the very nature of the photograph. I’ve realized that part of my work—our work, as modernist scholars of visual culture—is to improvise new methods and approaches by which we can let these archives speak, even in the face of their sometimes-empirical paucity, their equivocations, gaps, and silences. (Or maybe it’s that we need to find ways for us to speak to these kinds of archives, as Pardis Dabashi does so beautifully in her letter to Nella Larson in this forum.) We need to turn the epistemology of modernism inward—to get comfortable with uncertainty, with breaking away from entrenched critical norms and expectations—so as to reconceptualize the means by which these shadowed and incomplete archives can be seen and heard.

I imagine a project, inspired by works such as Saidiya Hartman’s remarkable Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, which might bring some of these women photographers—their forgotten names and lost images—out of the shadows. According to Mbembe, “writing history merely involves manipulating archives” (“Power of the Archive,” 25). It is by “[f]ollowing tracks, putting back together scraps and debris, and reassembling remains” that the archivist can bring “the dead back to life by reintegrating them in the cycle of time” (25). This short essay is one such gesture: to raise two ghosts, dust off their debris, and place them back in the cycle of time.


I’m very grateful to Donna Newton, Librarian at the Royal Australian Historical Society, Sydney, for providing me with access to archival materials relating to E. G. Shaw and Josephine Foster. I would also like to thank Western Sydney University for generously supporting this research project through a Women's Fellowship in 2018.

[1] See the “May and Mina Moore Collection” at the State Library of Victoria. The National Gallery of Australia holds the Margaret Michaelis collection as well as a substantial number of photographs by Olive Cotton. Helen Ennis, former Curator of Photography at the National Gallery of Australia, has published monographs on Cotton and Michaelis; see Ennis, Olive Cotton: Photographer (Canberra: National Library of Australia, 1995), and Ennis, Margaret Michaelis: Love, Loss and Photography (Canberra: National Library of Australia, 2005).

[2] See Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), and Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019).

[3] Achille Mbembe, “The Power of the Archive and its Limits,” trans. Judith Inggs, in Refiguring the Archive, ed. Carolyn Hamilton, Verne Harris, Jane Taylor, Michele Pickover, Graeme Reid, and Razia Saleh (Dordrecht, NL: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002), 19–26, 21.

[4] There is a short entry on Clarke in Barbara Hall and Jenni Mather, Australian Women Photographers, 1840–1960 (Richmond, Victoria: Greenhouse, 1986), 67–68. See also the reference for Clarke by Anne Maxwell (with Morfia Grondas and Lucy Van) in The Australian Women’s Register. Melissa Miles discusses Clarke briefly in The Language of Light and Dark: Light and Place in Australian Photography (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015), 62–65.

[5] Pegg Clarke, “Catalogue of Camera Pictures by Pegg Clarke,” The Athenaeum Gallery, 188 Collins Street, Melbourne, December 5-17, 1932, available through the State Library of Victoria.

[6] See “Pegg Clarke; Living Cheap in France, Melbourne Women’s Experiences,” The Herald (January 5, 1928): 10, available in Trove; “Artists Go Abroad, Chat with Misses Wilson and Clarke,” The Register (April 4, 1927): 12, available in Trove.

[7] This photograph is presumably held in a private collection; the Flickr gallery in which it appears was produced as part of the retrospective exhibition, Together Again: Celebrating the Work of Pegg Clarke and Dora Wilson, Town Hall Gallery, Hawthorn, Melbourne, August 5–29, 2009.

[8] See Arthur Streeton, “Art Exhibition, Camera Pictures,” The Argus (October 23, 1930): 5, available in Trove; and Basil Burdett, “Miss Clarke’s Art with Camera,” The Herald (November 17, 1936): 7, available in Trove.

[9] The collection at the State Library of Victoria holds less significant works: a few portraits, urban and country landscapes (all taken in Australia and New Zealand), and many photographs of buildings around Melbourne that appear to have been taken for commercial purposes.

[10] It would be misleading to describe the collection as a digital archive, as Shaw is not listed as having her own archive or collection within the SLNSW catalogue. Rather, her photographs are included within a larger archive relating to the Royal Australian Historical Society.

[11] Biographical information on Shaw was obtained from various public records. I’m very grateful to Megan Martin at the Sydney Living Museums for sharing these documents and findings with me.

[12] Twenty-Second Annual Report and Statement of Accounts, 1922 (Sydney: The Royal Australian Historical Society, 1922), 445.

[13] Letter to Mrs. J. A. Shaw from the General Secretary, March 26, 1942; The Royal Australian Historical Society Archive, Sydney. The Annual Report for 1941 indicates that the donation was made in that year. Shaw’s archive was subsequently transferred to the State Library of New South Wales. Due to the instability of nitrate negatives, the State Library destroyed all of Shaw’s negatives after copying and digitizing them in 2013.

[14] Alix Beeston, In and Out of Sight: Modernist Writing and the Photographic Unseen (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 2.

[15] Walter Benjamin, “A Short History of Photography” (1931), trans. Stanley Mitchell, Screen 13.1 (1972): 5–26, 20.

[16] Ian Walker, City Gorged with Dreams: Surrealism and Documentary Photography in Interwar Paris (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2002), 90.