In this stirring show, an 8-by-10-inch photograph dated 2007 that looks like a grainy aerial view of the tide meeting the wind, or a particularly pale Vija Celmins drawing, could not whisper any softer. It is, however, Alison Rossiter’s revelatory Big Bang, the origin image that launched her eight-year exploration into the sensuous and metaphoric potential of expired photographic papers.
Mostly from 2014 or ’15, the 50-plus works at Yossi Milo (some on papers that date as far back as 1897) divide, loosely, into the categories of found and made. For the found images, like that serendipitous piece from 2007 (made from a sheet of paper that expired in 1946), Rossiter developed entire unexposed sheets, catalyzing textures and tonalities from the aged, unstable emulsions, which had been compromised by light leaks, fingerprints, mold or oxidation. The images are atmospheric, amorphous fields, comprising a kind of visual weather. Many, like the group on 1930s Gevaert Gevaluxe Papier Velours—considered the best gelatin silver paper ever made—are luminous, James Turrell-like in their conflation of fullness and emptiness. Tones coaxed to the surface span the value scale: ink, charcoal, graphite, smoke, ivory, white. Their expanses invoke velvet, metal or fog. One cluster of small, postcard-size works (all titled Eastman Kodak Velox, expired May 1919, processed 2014 and from the series “Latent”) suggests rubbings or erasures. Though smooth, they seem records of abrasion, chronicles of some sort of scraping or scarring.
For the constructed images, Rossiter dipped portions of the photographic paper into developer or poured the chemicals to create silhouettes and shadowed planes. Seven small sheets of Defender Argo paper, expired in 1911, read as spare landscapes, dark horizons beneath brooding skies and starry flecks of white. When she has joined two sheets, each containing a dark, fluid half-moon, the diptych evokes a deep portal or a Zen Rorschach. For the “Splits” and “Fours” series (both 2015), Rossiter assembled into grids four 24-by-20-inch sheets, the largest of the old papers she has engaged. While the works with more organic shapes and softer contours recall stain painting, these large pieces tap into the history of hard-edge abstraction. Articulating planes which tilt and recede, Rossiter orchestrated jaunty compositions that play with opacity and translucency, positive and negative space, flatness and dimensionality.
All of the works pay homage to the rich idiosyncrasies of photographic papers across history, and restore a sanctity to the photograph as object. Made without cameras, lenses or film, the works are nothing but process and materiality. Their subject, if they can be said to have one, is time, photography’s most irreducible ingredient. Even without capturing the milestones of life’s passage, Rossiter’s images manifest the medium’s many poignant complications and contradictions with regard to time: the way it simultaneously suspends and resuscitates a moment; memorializes and yet transcends death; belongs to both then and now. The works are matters of chemistry and chance turned intimate and intentional, elegiac and at the same time celebratory.