They say that it’s important to take the time to mourn something lost.
I used to love taking refuge in the red glow of the small darkroom in our basement. The beeping of the enlarger, the counting of the exact number of seconds of dodging and burning, the smell of the paper and chemicals, and the creaking of the mechanical rocker gently agitating my prints in the trays—these things combined to create one of the spaces where I felt most at home. But after I got my first digital camera, I inadvertently let this magical world slip away.
From October 18 through January 5, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa is presenting Robert Burley: The Disappearance of Darkness, an exhibition produced and organized by the Ryerson Image Centre and curated by Dr. Gaëlle Morel. A parallel exhibition is on view at the Musée Nicéphore-Niépce in Chalon-sur-Saone, France, from October 12 to January 12. The exhibition will also be at the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto from January 22 to April 13.
Between 2005 and 2010, Robert Burley captured the radical transition from the old photographic industry to the new digital era on his 4×5 field camera. But the Toronto photographer and professor didn’t set out to do a five-year photo project; he began only with the intention of photographing the closing of Toronto’s Kodak Heights, which he assumed was just a normal act of corporate downsizing. Burley explained, “When I began this project in 2005, Kodak was still a stable cornerstone of photography, and it was difficult to predict the true impact of digital media—which we are all starting to see clearly now.”
Then in 2007, Burley found himself in Rochester photographing the scheduled implosions of film factories. Next it was Polaroid in Boston. By then, large companies like Agfa, Konica and Ilford had declared bankruptcy, and Burley realized he was in the process of documenting “the disappearing industrial infrastructure of analog photography.”
When asked which photograph from the exhibition is his favourite, Burley mentioned Demolition of Buildings 65 and 69, Kodak Park, Rochester, New York, United States of America, 2007. He described the scene of the implosion: “Crowds of former Kodak employees gathered in a parking lot to witness and record the demolition of a block-long factory complex where they spent their lives making film and other photographic products. Most have their arms outstretched so they can see the display of their disruptive device (camera, phone, videocam, etc.) responsible for this ‘creative destruction’ of their former workplace. They all recognize this ‘Kodak Moment’ as a significant one that needs to be recorded for future reference—for a time when few will be able to explain the relationship between these mammoth factories and photography.”
It’s this exploration of the end of the analog film age and the beginning of digital era that make these images so compelling. Burley’s poetic images of vacant buildings, implosion sites and empty darkrooms capture the rapid and almost brutal abandonment of the century-old photographic film industry. Robert Burley: The Disappearance of Darkness is a beautiful elegy to what has been lost, and it seems only appropriate in this age of fast photography to take the time to slow down and pay our respects.
A companion book to this exhibition, Robert Burley: The Disappearance of Darkness. Photography at the End of the Analog Era, was published by the Ryerson Image Centre, in collaboration with Princeton Architectural Press. Check out our review in the April/May 2013 issue (subscribers can read it here)!