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Alison Rossiter: Darkroom Legacy

Opening spread of "Darkroom Legacy" by Nancy Tousley, Canadian Art, Spring 2011, pp 96–100

The neatly stacked packets and boxes in Alison Rossiter’s Manhattan studio contain the artist’s collection of expired photographic papers. To date, she has acquired a thousand parcels of old materials. The package designs and the odd names of the papers are emissaries from long-ago times. They are intriguing in themselves: on one attractive packet, the name “Silvered Darko” is accompanied by a dark-blue, Art Nouveau–style emblem of a moth, the chiefly nocturnal insect associated with dreams, shadows and the soul. The names “Darko,” “Dekko,” “Cyko” and “Selo” have an abracadabra ring to them, which is not inappropriate given what goes on in Rossiter’s darkroom.

There, Rossiter puts her collection of expired photo papers—some dating from as early as 1900—to work again to make new photographs, without the mechanical interventions of a camera. The materials have become prized because they have become obsolete, outstripped by digital photography; Rossiter frequently finds herself vying for them at auctions, she suspects with the Getty Museum. She works directly with the expired paper, first developing a sheet to see what has occurred on the surface and whether the paper is still viable. Depending on the answer, she either stops the developing process and fixes the resulting image, or, if the sheet has been exposed and prints as solid black, applies developer to the dry paper surface to produce an image manually, for example, by dipping the sheet to produce a vertical band or stripe.

“I am using the limited tools I have from my darkroom experience to coax images out of these long forgotten papers,” Rossiter explains. Having reduced photography to the minimal components of light source, light-sensitive material and darkroom chemistry, she summons up images like a conjurer. She practices photography literally as “drawing with light.” There is something magical in the way she handles the materials and uses the process of light-sensitive gelatin silver–based photography to produce unique works of art. Without negatives, her gelatin-silver photographs are handmade and one-of-a-kind. They are exemplary for their visual weight, material beauty, elusive mystery and conceptual rigour.

It was a 2007 eBay quest for sheet film to reload a 5×7 view camera— bought in Calgary for $75 in the early 1970s—that led Rossiter to put machinery aside. The shipment of sheet film from a North Dakota photographer’s studio included a box of photo paper with a 1946 expiry date. Out of curiosity, Rossiter tested a sheet and watched as an image surfaced unexpectedly on the expired paper. It resembled a rubbing or a drawing, and she knew then that there was something to be found in expired papers. It was a eureka moment that has grown into a body of work, which was shown first in a group show at Stephen Bulger Gallery in Toronto and is now attracting attention in North America and Europe.


Cameraless photography goes back to some of the earliest photographs: the “photogenic drawings” of William Henry Fox Talbot, made in the early 1830s by placing an object on sensitized paper and exposing the assemblage to light. Today, such images are known as photograms. Other contemporary photographers, such as Walead Beshty and Adam Fuss, are returning to the photogram and other old processes, like the daguerreotype. It seems, however, that Rossiter is the only artist working directly on expired photo papers with darkroom chemistry. What’s more, her practice produces photographs whose abstract images represent nothing but their author’s actions or the traces of other events—like fingerprints, mould or light—which have left their marks on the photographic papers. Some of these photographs recall the abstractions of Barnett Newman, Ellsworth Kelly or Morris Louis, while others are highly allusive, suggesting barren landscapes, turbulent weather, mysterious drawings or the effects of nature.

Rossiter’s 2010 additions to her ongoing Lament series include six photograms made with different varieties and sizes of expired sheet film, the first type of expired material that Rossiter acquired when she began collecting in 2007. Each rectangular sheet has notches at the upper right corner, a Braille-like code that identifies the film and indicates which side should be facing the photographer working in the darkroom. Rossiter made the photograms with a combination of old and new materials, by laying a single piece of expired sheet-film face-up on a sheet of contemporary photo paper and exposing it by quickly flicking the overhead light in her darkroom on and off. She then laid the exposed paper in the developer tray. Before the sheet-film image developed fully—as a white shape on a dark background—she took the wet paper out of the developer and again flicked the light on and off.

Thus re-exposed by a technique known as the Sabatier Effect, or solarization, the six images in the Lament series are elegiac, dark, grey-on-grey photograms with a delicate line of white showing around the film sheet. The image appears three-dimensional. “But it’s only a shadow that has gone through this re-exposure process so that it floats in the image,” Rossiter explains. “It becomes a grey object on a grey ground, which is exactly what I wanted to say about these disappearing materials; the image seems to disappear in front of you.” In shape and proportion, the sheet-film image recalls a tombstone or a funeral stele sinking into a void.

The Lament series photograms’ powerful, paradoxically material presence seems to stem from Rossiter’s lamentation for vanishing photographic materials. The 57-year-old photographer, an American with many ties to Canada, began her career as a so-called “straight” photographer, and worked with cameras, film, photo paper and wet darkroom processes for 40 years. She became a photography devotee at the age of 17, during a six-week summer course taught by Bob Alexander at the Banff School of Fine Arts. On the strength of her Banff coursework, she was admitted to the competitive professional photography program at the Rochester Institute of Technology in 1971.

In the years that followed, Rossiter studied photography in both Rochester and Banff before settling in Canada in 1975. She lived here, nomadically, for 11 years: she taught photography at Banff, worked as an assistant at Yajima/Galerie in Montreal and taught at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) and the University of Ottawa. During these years, the Montreal painter and photographer Charles Gagnon became a major influence. After Gagnon’s death in 2003, his wife Michiko Yajima Gagnon and their daughter Erika Gagnon gave Rossiter his darkroom trays, squeegee and the unused photo paper in his studio.

In the mid-1980s at NSCAD, where the artist Gerald Ferguson was a mentor and friend, Rossiter was exposed to process-oriented conceptual art, an approach that now deeply underlies her work. Rossiter recalls a visit Louise Lawler paid to the college, around 1982, during which the American conceptualist showed a group of photograms of vinyl record albums. The object was essentially the same in each photogram, but Lawler titled each image with the name of the album it represented, invoking the music on the recording. Years later, beginning in 1997, Rossiter made a lively series of X-ray–like photograms of standing books with fanned pages. Each image bears the title of the book she used, as in Dialogues of Plato, Principia, Moby Dick, Black Beauty, Every Secret Thing.


Rossiter acknowledges this work’s debt to Lawler’s photograms. “I was finding an object, naming it by the title of the object—the book—and allowing the suggestion of ideas to come,” she explains. In her recent work, Rossiter employs a similar method of making and titling images. The sheets of expired film or photo paper she makes use of are objects, and, like the books, they are found objects. In the case of the expired photo papers, each paper is a found object that has the potential to reveal latent imagery or to produce an image, through actions performed directly on the object itself. Rossiter titles the ensuing photogram or photograph with the name of the paper she has used, its expiration date and the date it was processed—as in Kodak Kodabromide G3, expires Jan. 1, 1948, processed in 2008 (2008). There is a clear gap between the dates, a historical distance in which the paper was subject to accident and deterioration before being reborn as an assisted readymade.

Many of the notable physical aspects of the images come from age and from the light-sensitive silver emulsion on the expired papers. Some sheets are small, thin and have acquired a sculptural curl. Their textures and colours vary: from delicately polished to velvety, from chalk-white to a rich cream so warm it tends toward pink. The monochromatic images are sometimes surprisingly colourful; oxidation on the face of a sheet, for example, creates a border of silver tarnish shot through with blue. In a 1994 interview, Lawler observed that the objects that Marcel Duchamp chose as readymades were banal in their time, but that “all the readymades are interesting-looking things now, and their normalcy is gone.” If Rossiter’s work has an unusual materiality for photography, it is partly because her old materials, heavy with silver, are now rare.

It is also because object and image are inseparable in her work; the one determines the process that creates the other. The actions she performs can be as simple as developing the expired paper and fixing the image she finds with darkroom chemicals. These often uncanny prints seem like a photographic unconscious, brought to the surface by the artist’s darkroom operations. For Rossiter, the most unexpected finds have been the fingerprints of the photographers who last handled the paper before she reopened the packet. In her darkroom, the link to photography’s past-tense is immediate.

The fingerprint is an indexical trace of someone in the world; it is not an image of a fingerprint, but a fingerprint itself. Likewise, Rossiter’s actions—dipping the paper in the developer, pouring developer across the paper, or pooling developer on the paper surface and allowing it to find its own shape—produce abstract images that are the material witnesses of their own creation. They are what they are: the result of direct actions—a dip, a pour, a pool. A Rossiter photograph is not of something so much as it is something. This photograph-as-object is potent, and poetic.

The contingency of photography plays a strong role in the oeuvre of an artist who works in photo conservation—at the Better Image, a studio in Manhattan—and is becoming an historian of materials. Inspired by the disappearance of the gelatin-silver process and its trappings, Rossiter records the method and makes it viable once again through her work. In her titles, she connects her images to conceptual ideas and aesthetic concerns, and also to the history of photography, the industrial history of photographic materials and processes, and the effects of new technological developments on consumer trends and the market economy. She breaks with overly determined, medium-specific definitions of what photography is, and embraces chance and change.

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