“I’m looking at an entire century, when I see these papers.”

Density 1947, 2020 © Alison Rossiter

Can you tell us about your background?

My studies began in 1970 when I was 17 years-old and I went to Banff, Alberta, Canada, for a six-week summer class. Based on that experience, I went to the Rochester Institute of Technology, to study professional photography. After that, I emigrated to Canada, to work on a photograph conservation project, in 1975, and stayed in Canada for a number of years, teaching in art schools.

Would you define photography as an art or a craft?

I believe that photography is both an art and a craft. I think that the techniques of photography are very important to learn, to be able to express ideas. At least that’s the way it worked for me. If I had my skills down pat, then I could get across an idea that I had with photography.

What sparked your switch from traditional photography to more paper-based and photogram work?

Someone left a package of paper in the dark room once and that began my experimentation with photograms and laying objects down on paper. And that led, in subsequent decades, to more photogram work, but thinking about making imagery without a camera. Eventually, in 2007, I started collecting expired photographic paper, and that left behind the cameras completely, to focus strictly on dark room techniques.

You research the paper’s history. How do time and archives influence your work? 

The dates on the packages of the expired paper place them on a timeline in my imagination. I’m looking at an entire century, when I see these papers. For example, in this piece, these are the years of the Second World War. In fact, I believe I started this one in 1938 to include some early German aggression, but each one of these papers represents a specific year in that time period, and so, to me, that is a portrait of World War II, and it’s coming just from the tonalities that existed in the leftover expired photographic papers.

And what about the photographic surface?

When I first process a paper, I am looking for the marks that have been left by time and circumstance. I’m looking for mold, or silver mirroring, oxidation… The things that happen to a paper chemically when it just sits by itself. And I simply develop those sheets of paper – that’s one direction, to see what’s there. When I have plenty of paper to play with, I then allow myself to make specific marks, by developing the paper, using a tide line to make a straight line on the page… That is when I’m doing intentional work, to make shapes that suggest other objects.

What does it mean to use analogue in a digital age?

My education is analogue. I’m strictly a product of the 20th century. And although the papers are rare – the light sensitive gelatine papers – they still exist, and so does the chemistry. I can still go to a store and buy it. So, for the time being, I make prints the way I know how to make prints, and they exist in the 21st century along with digital materials in a way that points to their own history. That’s what I can do.

What are some of your influences?

When I first began, I looked for mentors. I saw a film at the Rochester Institute of Technology – they were introducing famous photographers to us. I saw a film about Dorothea Lange, and the work she did in the 1930s. I was so impressed with her going into the camps and driving all around the country to make work… I noticed that she wore a beautiful silver cuff and ever since I was 18 years old, I have worn a silver cuff like hers, and it is absolutely a dedication to Dorothea Lange and my life as a photographer following hers.

As an abstract visual artist, would you say there is such a thing as a female gaze in your work?

I don’t intentionally have a feminine gaze in my work – in this expired paper work, no. But, when I was photographing very specific feminist projects in the 1980s, absolutely it was my intent. Make no mistake, the work was feminist, the gaze was feminist. But now? no. I’m using the history of photography as my subject matter.

Have you encountered any difficulties in your career because of your status as a woman?

I had the good fortune of starting my career in the very early 1970s, and I had the benefit of the work that was done by 1960s feminists for me. And so, jobs that may not have been available to me a decade earlier were open, and I was hired as a young photographer. So, I owe a considerable debt of gratitude for the work that was done for me.

What do you think of positive discrimination measures towards women?

I think at this point they are still necessary, and I am sorry they are. I wish that it was an equal playing field at this point but now any help that women get to have a chance to succeed is absolutely wonderful and necessary. So, I support it 100%.

Alison Rossiter © Michelle Kloehn


The American artist Alison Rossiter (b. 1953) makes camera-less photographs. She graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York and the Centre School of Fine Art in Banff, Canada. Fascinated by materials and their history, she imagines abstract and minimalist works, crafted using papers dating from the 18th century to the 1980s. She transforms these elements, playing with the marks of time – mould, tears, etc. – and chemical substances in the darkroom. Rewarded by the Shpilman International Prize for Excellence in Photography (2018), her experimental works have been exhibited in the United States, as well as in Germany, Canada and France, at the Rencontres d’Arles. They have also been included in numerous collections, including those of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

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