Tina Rowe


Oyster Shell Ghosts

I was given a box negatives that were found at a car boot sale along with other items related to photography. It seems the negatives were developed by an amateur photographer who wasn’t particularly skilled so it was difficult to gage what the actual images were. I used them as a practice as I had intended to print portraits of trans racial adoptees on these shells as I liked the literalness of printing a discarded thing on another discarded thing. These negatives seemed more suitable because the subjects really are lost, there are no names, it’s possible to guess the timescale from their clothes but even the relationships between the subjects are not fully clear. Placing the images on the shell and displaying them amongst other items mudlarked from the Thames while encouraging the audience to pick them up and examine them meant that these figures were really looked at, really seen, if only for a moment.

I studied early modern English history as an undergraduate. I became very interested in how the process of recounting history often erases the majority of the individuals who contributed towards it. We see palaces and talk of the people in whose name they were constructed instead of thinking about the people who built them. But each and every one of those people was an individual, with a name, with parents, someone who ate and drank, slept and dreamed.

I like to mudlark, which is picking up items from the shore line of the Thames in central London. A few years ago I started to notice the thousands of oyster shells that can be found near St Paul’s cathedral. Oysters have never grown in central London, they had to be bought in from Essex and Kent, along mud and gravel roads, by mule, in carts. Over 100s of years millions of them came through, were sold, shucked and consumed and the shells thrown back into the river.

Every one of those shells attests to a way of life and by association to individuals. We can piece together an outline of a human being from a shell, from an analysis of the chemical traces we can place it, examining the ridges and how far apart, how old the bivalve was and even when it grew so we can place it in a specific historical context and make guesses about the people who transported, sold and ate it. Those are the material facts of a life. Everything else is gone.

It doesn’t take long for people to become lost to us. So when my brother in law gave me a box of negatives he’d found at a car boot sale I decided to print them on to some of the shells I’d been collecting because I liked the fact these disparate objects were weighted with history that was easy to ignore unless something made people stop and look. 

This work is usually shown on the floor of a gallery in and amongst other objects I have picked off the shoreline including modern garbage, grit, bones and gravel. People are encouraged to look at and touch the objects. This is counter to what you might usually expect in a gallery. People swiftly go from realising that they are looking at another human being to thinking about their own relationships. One of the most important properties of these images is that they sit easily in the palm of the hand. People hold them with great gentleness, they think about the people in the images and frequently memories of people they have known are triggered. This work won the Denis Roussel Award in 2019


Since 2019 i have printed around 120 of these shells. some have been sold, some have been given away, some have been left in public spaces or thrown back in the sea in Essex and Kent as well as back into the Thames around London Bridge. A few of them have cropped up in local facebook groups sparking some discussion about where they came from and why.

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