Paper Wait: The Darkroom Alchemy of Alison Rossiter

BORDER CROSSINGS: In a digital age that’s not a usual way to approach photography. It seems like you have always been something of an outsider.

ALISON ROSSITER: Well, I have tried many subjects with cameras and messed around in the darkroom. But there has never been one subject I was interested in following for the rest of my life. I would say Cindy Sherman discovered that dressing up and photographing herself brought identity into focus, which is a thing critics wanted to write about. And to this day she is still dressing up and photographing herself, quite successfully. I never found anything that fascinating, so I have jumped from subject to subject, experiment to experiment. But if you lined them all up, there is continuity: basically a fascination with putting one thing into a particular context that would suggest a certain meaning. So in the ’80s, when I photographed a feather duster as this glamorous object, it pointed straight to feminism. To this day, when I am working with the expired papers, it is still one aspect of the paper that interests me. Simplicity has been a guide.

So there are ways in which the processes of photography have been more important to you than the subjects of photography?

It’s turning out that I absolutely adore the materials and studying a different history of photography than the one that’s been written. I like finding out who was experimenting long before photography was actually called that. So I’ve always been in love with photography, but I never had anything particular to say with it until I found these papers.

So is photography the subject of your photography? There is a meta-quality in what you are doing?

I would agree. Right now the expired papers make reference to other art, artists and photographers. At times I’ll make something that looks like a Gustave Le Gray photograph from the 1850s, and it’s simply the fact that we’re both dealing with the concept of landscape. When I can make an association in the darkroom, whether it’s a mouldy piece of paper that looks like a Jackson Pollock painting or a Morris Louis pour, those associations are just gifts. I don’t plan on them, but I respond when they come up.

Nepara Carbon Velox from 1908 (processed in 2009) looks like Ellsworth Kelly, and at other times Rothko comes to mind and Sugimoto in the landscapes. Are these darkroom discoveries or can they be manipulated and shaped? I am interested in how much room you have to make the image as opposed to discovering it in the paper.

I decided at the very beginning that I wasn’t going to use developer and a paintbrush. I’m not a painter; I’m a photographer who has learned how to work in a darkroom. I use my simple tray of developer, either rocking it or dipping a piece of paper into it, or pouring the developer onto a piece of paper. These are all very simple and familiar actions. So my limitations are how many ways can I find to do that.

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Above image: Alison Rossiter, *Eastman Kodak Kodabromide N2, expired Jan. 1, 1946, processed in 2008, unique silver gelatin print, 7 x 5”. Courtesy Art 45, Montreal, and TrépanierBaer, Calgary.*

Volume 30, Number 3: Photography

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #119, published September 2011.

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