To say that photography has been in a state of flux due to digital advancements would be a massive understatement. From camera companies declaring bankruptcy to the closing of darkrooms and analog film programs, the technology and paradigms have shifted towards embracing the digital age.
Robert Burley began documenting the industrial infrastructure of analog photography before, during, and after its downfall. He witnessed companies like Kodak and Polaroid struggle to adapt in a fast-paced move towards digital photography.
These efforts are a part of The Disappearance of Darkness, which features 71 large-format photographs from the Polaroid plant in Waltham, Massachusetts to the Kodak-Pathé plant in Chalon-sur-Saône, France. Read an exclusive excerpt of his introduction below, which explains his photographic philosophy and the origins of an ever-changing medium.
"All photography is about loss. Any act of taking a picture is underscored by a desire to record some- thing on the verge of change or disappearance. We use the camera to stall (or at least slow down) time, making images of the present for recall in the future, either because we don’t trust our memories to absorb or our minds to grasp what a moment was. Since photography’s invention in 1839, this indexical relation- ship to time and reality has been the medium’s currency. It has allowed us to look at the past through eyes that could only dream of what might lay beyond the moment a photograph was made.
As recently as ten years ago, I could not have dreamt that Kodak Heights, Kodak Canada’s manu- facturing complex in Toronto, the city where I now live, would be shut down for good in 2006. It was the tip of the iceberg. Six years on, I realize how little I knew then about the disappearing world that has preoccupied me since that time: the photographic industry. All photography was once about darkness, both literal and figurative—no other medium was predicated on it; darkness made photography unique. In the literal sense, both the production and processing of light-sensitive materials, photographic films and papers, required darkness. Figuratively, the companies manufacturing these materials have always operated in the dark, guarding a secret world of patents and high profits from those who might want to steal those alchemical formulas and methods.
While there have been only a handful of companies that manufactured photographic films and papers over the last century, their sheer size and reach would have made any kind of comprehensive history of the industry unworkable. Instead, what I set out to do was chronicle my own relationship to this world. The companies and sites I chose to photograph were all a part of my own history. My connection to the places and events in this book is a personal one, as an artist whose work depended on the materials manufactured in these mammoth and windowless buildings.
My investigation began in 2005, the year I learned that Kodak Canada’s parent company, U.S.-based Eastman Kodak, had decided to close down the Canadian operation in response to a steadily shrinking demand for its traditional photographic products. Intellectually, this should have come as no surprise; it was clear by this time that as the use of digital cameras increased, there was a corresponding effect on film: many amateurs and professionals alike no longer bought photographic film. The shift to digital appeared inevitable. What could the industry do but downsize?
But I was a photographer and, after all, this was Kodak. It was unthinkable that the iconic name that had become synonymous with photography itself could disappear. I immediately applied for, and was granted access to take pictures of the plant in Toronto before it closed. In my first days of photographing at Kodak Canada, I spoke to workers—from chemical engineers to administrative assistants—who were in shock and disbelief. The company had been a lifetime employer, and the announcement of the plant closing had shaken them to the core. It felt like speaking with someone who was trying to absorb the unexpected death of a close family member.
To create my photographs of the plant, I decided to use film, the material that had for decades been manufactured inside these very buildings. My motives were not fuelled by sentimentality; at that time, film was still the medium of choice, the one I knew would deliver the best results. In making these pictures, I caught the first glimpse of what now, with hindsight, seems impossible to have missed: the degree to which the industry supporting analog photography was threatened by a perfect storm of social, economic, and technological change.
The key to that storm, and to the vulnerability of Kodak and companies like it, was the economy of scale. When the company’s founder George Eastman introduced his Kodak camera in 1888 with the slogan, 'You press the button, we do the rest,' he knew that if his invention were to succeed, it would need to be adopted worldwide. By simplifying and reducing the cost of what had been a complex, expensive, and cumbersome process, Eastman believed he could convince a global clientele to take up photography and buy his products. He succeeded magnificently; by the 1920s, photography had become a ubiquitous multi-faceted tool used to commemorate family occasions and exotic places, to record wars and scientific marvels, to create image inventories of the everyday world, and to provide a medium for artistic expression. For the next eighty years, Kodak’s supremacy was unchallenged. But then the century turned; at the dawn of the new millennium, algorithms began to replace chemistry in photographic production, and Eastman’s roll film became not only anachronistic but also unsustainable without its enormous customer base.
I now know that when I began photographing at Kodak Canada in 2005, I was documenting not just the decline of film but its disappearance. After spending eighteen months shooting the evacuation, decommissioning, and demolition of the plant—the architecture of this darkness—I turned my attention to similar companies and events. In 2007, I witnessed and recorded a series of scheduled implosions of film factories by the Kodak Company: first in Rochester, New York, the company’s birthplace (1888); and then in Chalon-sur-Saône, France, the birthplace, in 1827, of photography itself.
Each time I attended one of these implosions, I knew I was watching history. The moments were both sad and sublime—and ironic. At each implosion I found myself photographing not just the unreal spectacle of enormous structures reduced to dust in a matter of seconds, but also the spectators—many of them former Kodak employees—who were invariably recording the events with digital devices, with technology that used memory cards instead of film. In almost all instances, I was the only photographer documenting these poignant occasions on film.
It is the impending loss of the physical and material nature of my medium that I find most disconcerting. Traditional photographs exist in the present as objects created in the past, susceptible to the imprint of time which is manifest in their physicality. They are material objects tangibly connected to the world through the nature of their creation: impressions created with silver filaments suspended in animal gelatin, altered by light and chemistry. In the digital world, images are produced with binary code and exist as information; the material magic of photography is lost. And something else may be lost, too. Photography as an art form has always been dependent for its existence on the availability of film itself, as surely as painters have depended on the availability of canvas and tubes of paint. But the availability of film has always depended in turn on demand from mass markets that have included amateurs, professionals, government agencies, the media, and the health-care sector, to name but a few. Each of these enormous markets has switched to digital technologies because they are faster, cheaper, and more flexible. It is ironic to think that just as film has finally been freed from its mundane applications in the everyday world to be explored only as an artist’s material, it could very easily disappear altogether because these market forces no longer support the industry that makes it.
The future, however, is unknown, and anachronisms cut both ways. At this juncture in history, it is difficult not to recall the oft-repeated, though apocryphal, words of the French painter, Paul Delaroche, who upon seeing a photograph for the first time in 1839, ran into the street and declared, 'From today, painting is dead.' Technologies are made to be transformed, and redefined, even reinvented. If this book is a eulogy for film and the miraculous process it made possible, both now consigned to the past, it is also an article of faith that anything is possible. In this present day, having captured this dark and vanishing world in what I hope is a tender light, I continue my backward march into the future."
Credit: The Disappearance of Darkness by Robert Burley (Princeton Architectural Press)
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