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Spotlight On: Alison Rossiter

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Light Horse (From Eadweard Muybridge's Horses, Running, Sallie G) - Alison Rossiter | FFOTO
Alison Rossiter, Light Horse (From Eadweard Muybridge’s Horses, Running, Sallie G), 2003 © Alison Rossiter / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery
Alison Rossiter’s art practice is primarily pursued without the aid of a camera, yet her compositions are still conjured in a traditional darkroom setting. She ‘finds’ photographs using a variety of expired photo papers, chemicals, and the dimmest lighting. The resulting explorations feature masterfully rendered images that demonstrate an impeccable technique. Rossiter’s prints have an undeniably tactile materiality, making them equally appealing as both photographs and objects.

Including Rossiter among our growing group of artists marks an important addition to the variety of photo-based approaches available through FFOTO. In the following Q&A, Stephen Bulger delves into Rossiter’s process, giving insight and offering an extra layer of context to her artistic output.

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–Craig D’Arville, COO, FFOTO

No. 11, Kodak A20 F-3, Expired March 1, 1945 - Alison Rossiter | FFOTO
Alison Rossiter, No. 11, Kodak A20 F-3, Expired March 1, 1945, Processed 2007 © Alison Rossiter / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery

FFOTO: How did Rossiter come to work with old photographic papers from the 20th century, as in the series, Lament?

Stephen Bulger:  It happened gradually. For years Alison has been working with old processes (cyanotypes) and methods (photograms). She became an intern at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s photographic conservation lab, which piqued her interest in old photographic papers, and so when she came across some old boxes of photo paper for sale, she bought them largely out of appreciation for their package design. Eventually Alison’s curiosity about whether or not she would be able to use these old papers to make contemporary prints sent her into the darkroom to find out. She prepared the darkroom chemicals and, while working under the protection of a safelight, removed the top piece of paper from its protective packaging and placed it in the developer. Gradually, a faint image appeared that looked like it had been intentionally made, and it caught Alison off-guard. She was excited to see this trace of existence form in front of her eyes, giving an added layer of excitement to a process that has entranced photographers for decades. She considered these prints to be ‘found photograms’; although these images were not created by someone intentionally arranging objects, but rather came to existence through circumstantial exposure over the years that permeated the packaging, as well as the damaging effects of age impacting organic matter.

Producing photographs with so little intervention on her part was a completely new experience, but one that compelled her to scour for sources of long expired photographic papers, and to buy as much as she could.

Light Animal No. 9 - Alison Rossiter | FFOTO
Alison Rossiter, Light Animal No. 9, 2000 © Alison Rossiter / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery

FF: Can you walk us further through Rossiter’s various darkroom processes when she is working with expired papers?

SB:  Continuing her investigations, Alison devised a methodology with each box of paper: The first print to be processed is made using the sheet from the top of the package, then the sheet from the bottom; then the second sheet from the top, followed by the second sheet from the bottom, and so on, always working towards the centre. The density of the paper means that after a few layers there is less chance she’ll discover a ‘found’ photograph so she stops processing from that box. Later on, when Alison thinks about doing some selective development, she creates variations on a theme until the package of paper is depleted.

Due to oxidization, some of the papers turn a deep and uniform black that, while beguiling, wouldn’t have the modulation of form that had been catching her eye. After working on the project for well over a year, Alison began experimenting further, by selectively dipping the papers in developer, or pouring developer over them, which produced patterns she admired from mid-twentieth century art history. Doing these explorations under a safelight enables Alison to watch and guide the process, so although there is a strong element of surprise, these photographs are made more intentionally that the earlier works. She continues to produce work in both veins, which some of us have come to refer to as being either ‘found’ or ‘made’.

For those unfamiliar with photographic chemistry, it is important to know that the magic of photography has long relied on the ability of light to cause a reaction in silver. Photo papers are comprised of tiny silver particles suspended in an emulsion (usually gelatin); when exposed to light, a latent image is formed which must be developed out. An alkaline solution (developer) renders the latent image visible, and an acid bath stops that action. The use of a fixing agent as a third step removes any residual silver so the image doesn’t continue to darken to pure black, and makes the image permanent. Additional chemicals, and a thorough wash completes the archival processing and produces a long lasting photographic print.

Sears Roebuck Darko Cardboard - Alison Rossiter | FFOTO
Alison Rossiter, Sears Roebuck Darko Cardboard, exact expiration date unknown, ca. 1940s, processed 2012 © Alison Rossiter / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery

FF: Can you tell us about the significance of diptychs in Rossiter’s work, and the pairing/mirroring of images? 

SB:  Although each photograph by Alison in this series is unique, she works in various ways within the overall project. A diptych of a ‘found’ photograph indicates that the pieces of paper were in a package together. It is important to note that Alison has restricted her collecting of expired papers to include only packages that have been previously opened, so often what we see is actually evidence of prior ownership. It can appear as fingerprints, or as the visual effects that result when smaller pieces of photo paper (the remains of making test strips) are stuck to other pieces. Alison’s general policy is that if a piece of paper leaves the package stuck to another, those pieces should remain together and so she presents them as collages. I have to say she is a real master at piecing together photographs, and coaxing the maximum beauty out of her materials.

Regarding her series, Pools, those diptychs are created by placing two pieces of photo paper side by side and carefully pouring some developer solution on the abutting sides, allowing the developer to pool near a portion while surface tension protects the rest of the paper. After achieving full development, both papers are quickly picked up by their outer edges and placed in the stop bath so the unique shapes she watches form on the surface remain intact as the final photographs.

The Elements of Style - Strunk & White - Alison Rossiter | FFOTO
Alison Rossiter, The Elements of Style – Strunk & White, 2004 © Alison Rossiter / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery

FF: Alison also makes photograms, which aid in anchoring her practice within the long tradition of experimental photography. What’s significant about the specific books and objects that she chooses to work with?

SB:  Alison’s photograms of books are what introduced me to her in 1997. I love great photograms from the early twentieth century, but ones done more recently rarely attract my eye, so after my friend described the exhibition he was bringing me to, I entered Sarah Morthland’s gallery with some trepidation. However, I was blown away by the simplicity of the photographs, and how they were an homage to books, but were showing the books in an entirely different way. These are books from her own library that she selectively brings into the darkroom and places on an appropriately sized piece of photo paper, directly under an enlarger. A carefully timed exposure renders the background pure black while the spine, being the most impervious part of the book, is opaquely white. The covers have been fanned out to be self-supporting, so the interior pages fall as they might, rendered permanently as exquisite shades of gray.

FF: Alison describes her work as being an homage to analogue photography. When speaking about Lament, specifically, she refers to how the darkroom experience is like time travelling and states: “These are images that are making themselves”. Both the title, Lament, and that description of how the images appear suggest a reverential and almost spiritual aspect to her work. Is that a valid observation?

SB: I think that’s quite valid. Part of the time travel comes from working with papers that are often more than 100 years old, and the sense of prior ownership imparted on these items that were initially handled ages ago. I think Alison is being self-effacing when she says, “making themselves”; she has so much darkroom know-how in the back of her hand, that she can customize the chemistry to produce the utmost tonality. I agree that there is a strong element of accident in her work, but she is very methodical and skilled.

Her work is a testament to object quality. People often get so enthralled with a photograph’s content, that they fail to consider the aesthetic quality of the print itself. With any work of art, each and every decision that goes into the making of an object is extremely important. The maker must be in full control in order to create an object that elevates itself.

I should say that although Alison initially called the series Lament, over the years she has used other titles, too (i.e. Latent).

Untitled - Alison Rossiter | FFOTO
Alison Rossiter, Untitled, Circa 1995 © Alison Rossiter / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery

FF: Rossiter’s art would add a meaningful layer of context to any serious collection of photography. What other thoughts might collectors keep in mind when considering work by this artist?

SB: We’ve noticed that people are attracted to Alison’s work for a variety of reasons. Curators and collectors who specialize in photographs were early supporters of the work because of how it is an homage to aspects of the medium that have become extinct. Collectors of paintings recognize the influence of twentieth century art history. Most viewers of Alison’s work fall in love with the formal aspects of the work as well as the beauty of the objects she makes. Since the hand of the artist is apparent in each of these unique photographs, it’s also true that people sometimes are drawn to them as a reaction against the perfection of contemporary digital reproduction.