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The Photographer’s Lament:

Alison Rossiter is well known for her conceptual work using expired photographic papers. Her photographs are in the collections of major public institutions including the Art Institute of Chicago; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Milwaukee Art Museum; the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago; the Center for Creative Photography, Tucson; and the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Rossiter is represented by Yossi Milo Gallery in New York and Stephen Bulger Gallery in Toronto.

Recently, four images from Rossiter’s series Lament were included in the exhibition, The Surface of Things, curated by Keliy Anderson-Staley at the Houston Center for Photography. Rossiter spoke with Anderson-Staley about her work and practice.

Keliy Anderson-Staley: As someone interested in photographic processes and the rapidly changing nature of photography, I’ve been following your work for a long time. Your photographs are beautiful and profound. They even point toward something transcendent or sublime. The raw material of much of your work, though, is quite humble—photo paper.

Traditionally, when a photographer has seen a box of silver gelatin paper, they have been excited by its potential—but usually as a vehicle for the images they’ve captured in a camera. Your work invites us to think about the paper itself. You buy boxes of old, expired paper, and restore them from oblivion. This paper has become both your medium and your subject. What first drew you to expired paper, and why do you keep coming back to it? Could you talk about your connection to photo paper—its materiality, our changing relationship to it, its properties as an artistic medium?

Alison Rossiter: My work with old photographic papers began in 2007 with a box of Eastman Kodak Kodabromide E3, stamped with an expiration date of May, 1946. It came as an unexpected gift from an eBay seller who added it to my purchase of outdated sheet film. The first print I developed straight out of the box with no exposure to light, looked as if someone had rubbed graphite across the surface of a textured piece of paper, not unlike a Vija Celmins drawing. Age had degraded the emulsion, giving the print a distinct pattern. I had stumbled upon a way to capture substantial imagery made by the passage of time and to record the deterioration of a manufactured product.

Early photographic papers are undeniably beautiful. The quality of the paper stock, the surface texture, and the colors of the tones differ from the lesser materials available to me as a photography student in 1970. Optical brighteners introduced in the 1950’s changed the appearance of highlights forever. Papers from the first half of the twentieth century have a subtlety all their own. Through my extensive collection of expired photographic papers I now know what I have missed.

KAS: Precision is crucial in the titling of your works. You identify the paper brand and type, the approximate year it was manufactured and the year you processed it. There remains a gap between those dates, a time when the paper was sitting around in storage somewhere, before you brought it back to life, before you used it for its original purpose, which is to expose it to light. What are your thoughts about that gap in time?

AR: I think of the span between the expiration and the development dates as a timeline through history. The papers have quietly endured decades of world events, and development is an act of completion to their original task.

KAS: For some of your works you expose and process the paper as a sheet. There may be fingerprints or dings in the paper or other accidental signs of time passing. Other works are manipulated in some way—rolled or dipped deliberately in chemistry. There is a great deal of discovery involved in both methods for you, I imagine. I am wondering whether certain materials invite certain kinds of processing and if you could talk about the role of experimentation in your work.

AR: My first approach is to process the papers as I find them, with no exposure to light, no folding, no tearing. I look for subtle latent images formed by atmospheric pollutants, moisture, or physical damage. Oil from a fingerprint behaves like a light exposure, and when developed, the mark looks like a black ink smudge. Two photographers touched the same piece of paper in darkrooms decades apart. My second method is the selective development of portions of the paper. I make these images deliberately by dipping the sheets into developer to form distinct lines or pouring the chemistry onto the emulsion surface and allowing it to pool. Each paper presents the problem of how to use it to its maximum advantage. This dilemma appears with every darkroom session.

KAS: Some of your photographs are like formalist abstract constructions, others almost slide into the realm of the representative—they seem to suggest landscapes or other forms. We maybe can’t help seeing a landscape, but this is our eyes (and their training to photographic conventions) tricking us. It seems crucial, though, that viewers bring their own perspectives to the interpretation of your works. Could you speak a bit about what role, if any, you see played by the viewer in the completion of the work’s meaning?

AR: Very little information can suggest imagery. The illusion of a landscape, or of a geometric shape with weight and volume, comes from a few gestures in a developer tray. A horizontal line fools me into seeing a place. A mid-tone gray area lets me see an object with dimension. It is this simple perception that I find so astonishing. I welcome all interpretations.

KAS: At the Houston Center for Photography, you showed four images from the series, Lament. They are photograms of expired unprocessed sheet film. You wrote about the works, “The notch code in the upper right hand corner indicates what type of film it is to the photographer in total darkness. It is a twentieth century photographer’s form of braille. I wanted to make a body of work that acknowledges the loss of the materials and the system. The gray background allows the gray object to disappear gradually, just like the films I once used.” What are some of the differences for you in working with film versus paper? Is there a significant difference for you between your photograms and your works that present the paper itself?

AR: During my years of camera work with film I isolated individual objects with carefully chosen backgrounds to extract new meaning for the thing at hand. If my early works were to be viewed with my current work, a distinct similarity of simplicity would be apparent. From photographing objects I eventually arrived at the photographic print as an object itself.

Photograms taught me about the capability of photographic tonality. The object chosen for the photogram and the appearance of the background are equally important. The re-exposure to light during development produces tones that only light sensitive silver materials can render. This intrinsic photographic image is a marvel of reactions. I see the beauty of swaths of gray. The shadow of chemistry contributes to the idea of disappearance. The delicate white outline of the sheet of film is created by extreme exposure to light. The result is greater than the sum of its parts. My photograms of expired sheet films are the link to my use of expired photographic papers. One body of work leads to another.

KAS: In the Lament photograms, the edges of the film stand out sharply. They become monumental forms, almost like grave markers. Other writers have noted the elegiac tone in your work, and you are able to extract a great deal of emotional weight from your materials. In calling this work “Lament,” the loss of the photographer’s art and photography’s connection to the darkroom becomes a metaphor for other kinds of loss, or for loss in general. Could you speak to this symbolic dimension of the work and the idea of loss in your work?

AR: The Lament photograms are a tribute to my twentieth century photographic education. I learned the systems of silver-based photography and savored film names like Super XX Pan, Panatomic X, and Verichrome Pan. I could load film holders in total darkness swiftly with confidence. I plotted characteristic curves with densitometer readings. Photography was another language and an acquired skill. The disappearance of silver materials and processes is inevitable. The film photograms are a wave of farewell to an extraordinary experience.

KAS: When I see these images, I can’t help but think about carbon, especially because of the gray tones, or think about ashes. What you describe is a feeling of loss I think many photographers who grew up in the darkroom share. I am wondering how you might respond to me and others who read into this work ideas of mourning, thoughts of people we’ve lost or death in general?

AR: If my work sparks a sense of loss and remembrance of people, I am pleased that it has a reach beyond the investigation of materials. Loss is certainly the premise of the Lament photograms. Responses to death are personal and varied, depending upon circumstance. On a wall above a work counter in my New Jersey studio I have photographs of long-deceased people and animals. To my mentor I mutter periodically, “I’m working;” to my father and mother, “I’m alright;” to the animals, repeatedly, “Thank you.” The images are there to remind me of the strength of past experience and the future need to put my shoulder to the wheel. Photographs have power like no other catalyst I know.

KAS: Thank you for your time and for sharing your work with our readers.

AR: Thank you for allowing me to attempt to explain. I am grateful.