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The Specious Present

The Photography of Alison Rosstier –

Time is deceptive. It is always hiding something. The present is so fleeting that only the past and future may be comprehended. The nano-second of immediate event perception, the “specious present” is understood only in reflection. Every moment of consciousness is spent processing what has just past while constantly anticipating the future. The brain must contextualize each thought to make sense of the world, time-traveling relentlessly in an information-saturated world that threatens to overwhelm  the ceaseless internal dialogue that defines us to ourselves.

“Time isn’t like the other senses. Sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing are relatively easy to isolate in the brain. They have discrete functions that rarely overlap: it’s hard to describe the taste of a sound, the color of a small, or the scent of a feeling. (Unless of course, you have synsthesia…) ‘Brain-time’, is intrinsically subjective”, states Houston Neuroscientist David Eagleman, in the April 25th issue of the New Yorker, “The Possibilian” by Burkhard Bilger.

Barnet Bar-Gas, exact expiration date unknown,  c. 1920’s, processed 2007

Pianists scan the score they are playing approximately two bars ahead, anticipating the requirements of the measures to come, while their hands play what their eyes have already read and their ears listen to what has just been played; all the while reflecting on what was just heard and adjusting their fingering to create the next musical passage; concurrently reading the future while interpreting the past.

In conversation, we must gather all the words of each sentence into our short-term memory in order to make sense of what we are hearing. We can infer (from the history of personal experience) content as we listen, but any unexpected deviation will re-order what has just past so that the intended meaning is passed from the speaker to the listener. Additionally, in order to avoid aural overload and to absorb what is relevant, much of what we hear is filtered out as ‘white noise’. Hence each person’s recall of the conversation is purely subjective, the memory filters allowing only what is necessary for comprehension.

Making sense of the visual world is no less daunting. From the moment we open our eyes, we are assailed by imagery. The ‘visual clutter’ of our everyday world is reduced by our ability to zoom in, focus and contextualize the chaos which bombards our eyes, so that we can get the information that is pertinent to our immediate needs.

Photography is the one media that overtly attempts to arrest time. The fastest shutter speed currently available on a Digital SLR is 1/16000. But photographers often try to blur time with long exposures such as Mark Klett’s night-sky images or the images of Hiroshi Sugimoto of open-shutter exposures of movie theater screens or his candle-light pieces, In the Praise of Shadow.

At the opposite pole are the recognizable “decisive moments” of Cartier-Bresson, or the fictional instants of diCorcia’s elaborate set-ups or Tina Barney’s familial scenes caught in mid-motion or Larry Fink’s subjects trapped unawares in his flash or the “fragmented narratives” of Todd Hido. These are all examples of slices of life, stopped in time, so that the viewer can reflect and evaluate their subjective experiences with the subjective view of the photographer.

The majority of photographs made in the world fall into the above two categories: stop time or stretch time. When one visits the international art fairs such as Paris Photo or AIPAD in New York, one wanders from booth to booth, looking at isolated slices of time, delineated by their square or rectangular formats and bound by frames. The frames serve to lessen the phenomena identified as “visual crowding”. The predicament with displays in art fairs, and museums for that matter, is how to prevent visual over-load. One goes to a museum and after looking at twenty or so pieces, the work begins to blur, particularly if the exhibition is ‘themed’. The differences between the works lessen, and their similarities begin to merge. Like the invisible gorilla experiments, there is only so much the brain can process at a time and so begins to delegate pictures into a background of visual white noise.

At the most recent AIPAD exhibition, the work of Alison Rossiter resisted all unintentional attempts to be filtered out. At the fair, Rossiter was represented by two galleries: Stephen Bulger, Toronto, and Yossi Milo, New York. Her work was not just visually different (it was), it was arresting on account of its escape from the two basic time categories of stopping or alternately blurring time. Her work carries and aura of stillness, yet the images are all about the effect of time, so the contradiction is riveting.

Left: Origin of Species – Charles Darwin, 2004
Right: Principia – Isaac Newton, 2004

Rossiter, a photographer since the 1970s, first began her experiments with camera-less images in 1984 however, in 1997 she began to seriously concentrate on the photogram with her book series. The series was inspired in part by Louise Lawler, the conceptualist artist who would show films, with only the soundtrack, and a black screen, or the opposite; make photograms of vinyl records with the name of the album as the title. Each album-photogram looked virtually the same; however the implied content of the object was both dense and diverse. Rossiter, in her book-photograms stands the book on the photographic paper and exposes it to light, capturing the shadow as light. She then assigns the title of the book to the image: Principia – Issac Newton or The Origin of Species – Charles Darwin. These two books written in 1687 and 1859 respectively, radically altered the world view. In Rossiter’s photograms, they are rendered silent (like Lawler’s record albums), yet we know from the titles, the profound influence upon mankind that they hold. The images form an interesting dichotomy: illumination defined by shadow; elucidation defined by obscurity. But Rossiter has admitted, “It’s hard to be clever” when coming up with subject matter for photograms, a difficulty Adam Fuss seems to have mastered.

Eadweard Muybridge, Ruth Bucking, 2003

Extending her ‘straight’ photograms, she began sketching with light wands, taking inspiration from her interest in horses. By using masked pen-lights she began her Dark-Horse and Light-Horse series. The images are made by “drawing” on the paper with various masked pen lights. She learned that if she held the light very close to the paper, she could make relatively precise lines. When she pulled the pen light away from the paper, the line would form a halo of varying shades of grey. The resulting images are reminiscent of the Paleolithic cave drawings at Lascaux and titled: Dark Horse, Buck, 2006 or Work Horse at Rest, 2004.

In 2003, Rossiter volunteered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the Sherman Fairchild Center for Works on Paper and Photograph Conservation, under Nora Kennedy. Kennedy, along with Peter Mustardo, founded The Better Image, in Milford, New Jersey. (Rossiter now works at The Better Image as a conservation assistant.)  Her interest in photographic conservation served as the gateway to her heightened appreciation of photographic materials, particularly expired black and white papers and their instability as a unpredictable yet pliable medium to work with.

In 2007, looking on the internet for 5×7 film for a camera she had, she purchased the contents of a darkroom on EBay. The seller included an unopened box of paper which Rossiter tested for fogging and was surprised by what came up in the developer tray. The paper had degraded from the effects of time and the environment, and those effects, when developed, appeared as a Mark Tobey rubbing, or a Cy Twombly-ist like canvas. Most delightful was her discovery of a photographer’s finger print who had touched the Kodak Velox F3 that carried an expiration date of May 1941. Inspired by the latent images, she began purchasing expired, fiber-based paper whenever she could find it and now owns a stock of about 1000 papers. The oldest is Eastman Kodak Dekko which expired January 1, 1900.

Kodak Velox F3, expiration May 1941, processed 2007

These camera-less images from her ‘Lament’ series, aptly named for the obsolescence of photographic materials, are unique, not only in the world of art-photography but as one-of-a-kind objects as well. Rossiter coaxes the papers to reveal their latent degradation which results is an array of subtle colors; from flushes of purple-grays to rainbow edged patinas. “I hadn’t seen that tonality in my negatives.” she remarked in wonderment. If she finds that the paper has been completely exposed to light, (developing out black) she selectively dips edges in the developer or pools the developer to make solid abstract forms. The density of the high-content silver papers produces inky blacks that appear depthless and recall the abstract expressionists Robert Motherwell and Franz Klein. An expansion of Rossiter’s Lament Series is her photograms of expired sheet film. Laying a sheet of film on photo paper, she exposes the paper, and develops it. These ‘found’ rectangles, replete with their notch codes, tend to float off the paper, lending a two dimensional effect to the piece, evoking Rothko’s floating squares, sans color.

Nepera Carbon Velox, expiration May 1906, processed 2008

The multi-layered aspect of Rossiter’s work is mesmeric. First, there is the time-element: the work is a throw-back to Herschel and Talbot’s early experiments in light-sensitive material. There is the excitement of discovery of alteration, like an archeologist uncovering an extinct technology; highlighted in Rossiter’s titles: Defender, Carbon Argo, expiration August 1908, processed 2009, or Barnet Bar-Gas, exact expiration date unknown, c. 1920’s, processed 2007.

The images reveal the beauty of science and technology, tied inextricably to the relentless progression of nature working in the dark: light-sensitive materials responding to an environment outside of what they were intended for. The images refuse to be defined by what we identify as a ‘photograph’; the capture of an instant; yet they mark the inexorable march of time. Her photograms of books capture antique tomes that continue to influence the contemporary world, while her light-drawings of horses are ancient cave drawings produced in the present.

Left: Fuiji Gaslight, expiration c. 1920’s, processed 2009 

Right: Kodak Velvet Velox, expiration 1918, processed 2009

From the aesthetic point of view, one is reminded of the abstract expressionists. As Rothko once said, “We favor the simple expression of the complex thought…”  The effect of Rossiter’s work is the same as if one was wandering around the classical galleries of the MET and then walked into the modernist gallery. The effect is immediate. We must come up with a different set of viewing criteria as the old ones are no longer applicable.

Ultimately, Rossiter’s work combines both Eagleman’s theory of “brain-time” with “Newtonian time”, creating works whose silence stands out from the white noise of narrative photography. As Rothko once said of his own paintings, “their silence is so accurate”.



Expanded ‘Spotlight’ from B&W COLOR – Ross Periodicals: Issue 84

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