Wednesday, March 18, 2015

New takes on the old: Alison Rossiter

Rossiter, Gevaert Gevaluxe Papier Velours, expired. ca. 1930s, processed 2014, from the series Latent

Alison is very comfortable in uncomplicated surroundings: the vintage photographic papers she is known for, a basic darkroom set-up of trays, standard chemicals.  Her Manhattan studio is light and airy; along one wall a cage of shelves houses finished work, experiments, work-in-progress, neatly catalogued in rising ranks of exhibition boxes.  In another area, around a corner, she keeps old papers awaiting the right time or inspiration; a whiff reaches you of the musty trace of departed photographers.  She points to a pack of Leigrano, probably pre-war, with stains on it, and smiles.  The stains are its history; more will be drawn out later.  Her work tables beyond are covered in thin white paper, prepared expressly as if for a quiet party, perhaps of one: the paper is bare, there's nothing on it, you hesitate even to set your notebook on it, and she doesn't invite you to do so either.  You feel an unspoken decorum, severely followed.  Then, as you sit across from her on a folding chair, she warms up by trying out stories on you, tales of the early days of the Velox Company maybe, smiling and laughing easily.  She entrances you the way her pictures do and have done for years, in that sensuous and crisply bookish way you like.

Her preoccupation is photographic papers, from their earliest appearance near the end of the nineteenth century up to the 1970s, with even later ones sometimes piqueing her interest such as Tura Excellent, a paper that at one time rivalled Leigrano in esteem, in Europe anyway.   At this stage, on the occasion of her new show at the Yossi Milo Gallery, it won't be necessary once again to describe in detail her method, it has been well covered in the press and on this blog.  In brief she acquires papers at auction or distress sales, opens the box under safelight, develops, fixes and dries it, and looks at what's there.  Or she may test a part of a sheet by exposure to light before developing, to see how the blacks look.  Time, atmospheric contaminants, microscopic life, spills, light seepage, all take their toll in ways large and small.  The paper becomes a record of these events and of the human intensity or frailty behind them, in essence a sort of meditation on that history, in which Rossiter, by her judgment and compassion, her choices of selection - by her art - is participant.

Rossiter, Nepera Chemical Company Carbon Velox, shipped Nov 8 1897, processed 2014
Yet along with a methodology that would not be out of place in a quality control lab there is another, savvier side to her program: the choices of what to expose, of what to save and show.  Her newest work, while still at least nominally based on the chance discoveries lurking in expired paper, exploits this forthrightly.  She hoists and hinges together groups of pictures, where a dipped black edge on one is matched to a dipped black edge on another, to achieve a strong, clean, highly graphic effect.  The Haloid Military series is an example of it.

Rossiter, Haloid Military, expired October 1957, processed 2015
Installation view, Yossi Milo Gallery, 2015

My colleague Rich Turnbull in a 2010 comment noticed this tendency, which in the present show, though not dominant, has grown in scale and purpose.  He called it the 'reinstatement of the hand' into the work and the distinction is useful.  Some purists may bemoan it, others not.  To those who have come late to Alison's work, we should remind them that at one time she was drawing images of horses with a light pen and making photograms of books.  A true darkroom buff, she is entitled to be curious and have fun, wherever that may lead.  The common thread is her totally uncommon elegance (and her deadpan humor).

Here's a picture at the Bulger Gallery in Toronto, from her Book Project series of 2004.  You should look at them all - Darwin, Ovid, Ruskin.  It tells you a lot about what she's reading too, not a bad choice.

Rossiter, The Wisdom of Confucius, 2004

Despite all we've said, I admit I'm still partial to her revelations of what the old papers have to say to us, their little explosions of uncanny beauty when Alison pulls a sheet from her tray, the elaboration of processes as natural as the turning of the earth.  This week marks the birthday (and so I'm reminded) of another great cameraless artist, Anna Atkins, who did similar work, taking pains to get right what the natural world gave her.  Her great book Photographs of British Algae (1843) appeared just 4 years after the invention of the word 'photography'.

Rossiter, Ansco Cyko, expired Dec 1 1917, processed 2007
Anna Atkins, Halidrys siligrosa beta minor, 1843