Photo: Courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press
This book is my own march backwards into the future. It tells the story of an industry that was obliterated by the creative destruction of the digital age.
For those of us who grew up having to pose for family photographs—an exercise in patience and an annual half-day event, in which the person behind the lens reloaded the film and waited for the clouds to change, adjusting and readjusting aperture and shutter speed, checking the light meter several times before the shoot was finished, only to wait another week for the pictures to come back—it may be hard to imagine that film, darkroom, cutting room floor and the developing lab are slowly becoming obsolete.
The gradual extinction of analog photography is the subject of Toronto-based photographer Robert Burley’s new book, The Disappearance of Darkness. Burley spent several years documenting how monolithic film factories—including Kodak, Agfa, Polaroid, and Ilford—struggled, not always successfully, to cross the threshold into the New Digital World.
Between 2005 and 2010, Burley gained access to decommissioned film-manufacturing plants—iconic corporations that produced film, paper and chemical products for more than a century. Burley used his large-format film camera for this project (yes, the kind with the accordion-pleated box where each task is accomplished manually, and the photographer works with a dark cloth over their head to view, focus and compose the shot). A picture taken with a view camera like Burley’s means slow and careful thought at every stage—in other words, the opposite of the split-second multi-shots that arrived with the advent of digital cameras.
The result is a haunting series of photographs—produced on the very material whose annihilation Burley documents—exploring vacant, shut-down and demolished plants in Toronto, the U.S., England, Holland, Belgium and France.
Like a print removed from its fixing solution too soon, something is missing from the colour photographs: there are traces of life, but everyone has fled the scene. The populations these great industries once sustained are gone. In their abandoned feel, many of Burley’s photographs recall pictures of the ghost city Pripyat after the Chernobyl disaster.
Inside the buildings, we find a bench positioned by the enlarger in a darkroom, as if someone just stepped out for a cigarette. Empty warehouses, untouched walls of film coffins, faded signage, vacant offices, an old ID board of employee snapshots, graffiti, and interiors stripped bare, dominate. Outside, a dark photo lab with an “open” sign still on the window, desolate grey parking lots, and power plants surrounded by overgrown vegetation are eerie reminders of these companies’ bygone importance. The only crowds remaining are those gathered at the implosion site of Kodak’s Rochester plant, and the staff outside Kodak Canada in Toronto, on the last day of manufacturing operations. There is nothing romantic about Burley’s exterior shots of the colossal factories still standing—yet he has captured a certain stark beauty in their vast blankness and their clean, spartan lines.
Aside from Burley’s perceptive essay on the end of the analog era, the book contains three other essays by photography curators. In her article “On Endings,” Alison Nordstrom looks specifically at Burley’s work, and how he has managed to document the material traces of the disappearing film industry, not only in the physical world but also in our psyche. François Cheval takes us through the rise and fall of industry giant Kodak in his essay, “It takes more than one blast to bring down a factory.” And the NGC’s own Associate Curator of Photographs, Andrea Kunard, explores how changes in the photo industry have affected the interrelationship between art, photography, and industry in her essay “Art and Commerce, Creativity and Industry.”
Burley predicts that film photography in the digital age will survive as an art form with few practitioners. Even if, as many photographers say, “it’s not the instrument, it’s the eye,” this insightful homage to film makes one wonder what element of magic has been lost with the vanishing of analog culture.
For anyone interested in photography, material culture or history, The Disappearance of Darkness is a must-read. The book is as much a work of art as it is a nostalgic photo-documentation series.
The Disappearance of Darkness is also the subject of a traveling exhibition organized by the Ryerson Image Centre, on view at the National Gallery of Canada as of 18 October 2013. For more information, click here.
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