Requiem for film: Robert Burley and Michel Campeau

By Katherine Stauble, NGC on October 16, 2013

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Robert Burley, Light lock to cutting room, Building 10, Kodak Canada, Toronto, Canada, 2006. © Robert Burley. Courtesy of The Ryerson Image Centre

They give us those nice bright colors
They give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world’s
A sunny day, oh yeah
I got a Nikon camera
I love to take a photograph
So mama, don’t take my Kodachrome away

—Paul Simon, “Kodachrome,” 1973

When Paul Simon sang “mama, don’t take my Kodachrome away” in 1973, he was remarkably prescient. Just two years later, Steven J. Sasson, an electrical engineer at Eastman Kodak, invented the first digital camera. Management quickly shelved the idea, though, for fear of making itself redundant and, by 1993, Eastman Kodak was starting to bleed money. Today, the most commonly used camera is a phone.

Like an autopsy in images, two exhibitions coming to the National Gallery this fall examine the rapid demise of analog photography over the past several years. Robert Burley: The Disappearance of Darkness is an exhibition of photographs, by the Toronto-based Burley, of several decommissioned film-manufacturing sites, including Eastman Kodak. Michel Campeau: Icons of Obsolescence presents the Montréal photographer’s close-up images of decomposing darkrooms and their bric-a-brac contents. With their distinct viewpoints, these two Canadian photographers explore common themes: creativity, craftsmanship, time, memory, endurance, darkness and, most poignantly, death. 

The Disappearance of Darkness, organized by the Ryerson Image Centre and curated by Gaëlle Morel, features 30 of Burley’s photographs, as well as his montages of found Polaroid prints, a video, and a slideshow of a rave and art exhibition that took place in a former Kodak building. An accompanying book includes very fine reproductions of the images, and insightful essays by Burley and three photography curators, including the NGC’s Andrea Kunard.

Well-known for his images of architecture and landscapes, Burley has often explored the transition between city and country. Beginning in 2005, and using a large-format film camera, he documented the evacuation, decommissioning and demolition of the Kodak Canada facilities in Toronto, and later visited sites in the U.S., England, the Netherlands and France.

In exterior shots, Burley takes a detached, distant view of the architectural structures, capturing their immense scale with strong graphic form and muted colours. Building 13, Coating Facility, Kodak Canada (2006) is a bleak view of a white, windowless façade against a grey sky, with no sign of life.

Interior views are often suggestive of human presence (or absence). A stack of film storage boxes in one factory is a dead ringer for a morgue shelf. Hence the title, Coffins of Film, Film Finishing Building, Ilford (2010). In another image, a wall of faded employee portraits in the Polaroid building in Enschede, Netherlands recalls those haunting photo-montages of desaparecidos, or the disappeared. It is clear that the industry and its workers have gone missing.

For his part, Michel Campeau has often explored themes of the self and mortality. Beginning in 2005, Campeau visited 75 darkrooms in Canada before expanding his scope to Mexico, Cuba, France, Belgium, Germany, Japan, Vietnam and Niger. Icons of Obsolescence, curated by Andrea Kunard, presents some 40 works from this series. In images of dust-covered cameras, duct-taped equipment and tangled wires, Campeau’s darkrooms appear “hopelessly antiquated,” Kunard writes in an unpublished essay, “as if they have emerged from an archaeological dig.”

Michel Campeau, Untitled 8277 [Niamey, Niger], 2007–09. Ink jet print, 89.2 x 111.8 cm; image: 68.7 x 91.7 cm. NGC. © Michel Campeau/SODRAC (2013)

To Campeau—who, ironically, uses a digital point-and-shoot camera with a swivelling LCD screen, allowing him to get into tight spaces at unusual angles—these darkroom objects are symbols of both life and death. “I have often felt like a forensic expert at the scene of the crime,” he writes in the catalogue for an exhibition at Toronto’s Stephen Bulger Gallery. “Evidence of creativity, domesticity, and neglect lay all around me: improvised writing, roughed-in plumbing, ventilation systems, posted instructions, ambient pollution, chemical spills, worn-out equipment, and timers—real objects still standing in the way of the darkroom’s disappearance.”

Campeau’s emphasis on the eccentric, jerry-rigged aspect of the darkroom evokes a spectre of human presence. It also suggests an homage to past lives that has art-historical precedents. As Andrea Kunard says in an interview with NGCMagazine. “Campeau’s fixation on the various elements left behind in the darkroom is a type of memorializing. So these are still lifes with an element of the memento mori.”

One image, Untitled 0060 (2005–2006), has the crime-scene look that Campeau mentions, with its muddle of photographic supplies, tied-up plastic bag, and framed black-and-white picture of human toes emerging from the dark. In other works, chemical stains, corroded plumbing and thickly encrusted residues are menacing, as is the powerful image of a sink stained with swirls of blood red.

Colour film photography is likely doomed to extinction, suggests Burley. The traditional colour printing process is exceedingly complex—a “minor miracle” that can only be performed on a large scale in an industrial setting. “If film is to survive into the digital era,” he writes, “it is likely that it will do so in its simplest and original form, black-and-white, and be manufactured solely as an artist’s material.”

Kodachrome’s nice bright colours, rest in peace.

Robert Burley: The Disappearance of Darkness and Michel Campeau: Icons of Obsolescence are both on view at the National Gallery of Canada in the Prints, Drawings and Photographs Galleries from 18 October 2013 to 5 January 2014.

Saturday, 26 October at 2 pm: Michel Campeau and Robert Burley in conversation with Marc Mayer. Free with exhibition admission. Click here for details.


By Katherine Stauble, NGC| October 16, 2013
Categories:  Exhibitions

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Katherine Stauble, NGC

Katherine Stauble, NGC

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