Elegy for the strange death of analog art

Robert Burley’s images reveal vast industrial machine that fed analog photography

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Robert Burley / Ryerson Image Centre

Robert Burley / Ryerson Image Centre

In 1932, George Eastman, 77 and suffering from a painful spinal disorder, killed himself. He had been one of the great Gilded Age capitalists, the founder of the Eastman Kodak film-making company and lord of Smugtown, as the recession-proof city of Rochester, N.Y., became known. Even after his death, Kodak went from strength to strength, eventually employing 60,000 people—a full quarter of Smugtown’s population—and controlling 89 per cent of the U. S.’s insatiable demand for what made iconic Kodak moments possible. And then, in less than a decade early this century, it all fell to pieces or—quite literally, given that the firm’s purpose-built factories were useless for other purposes—was blown up, while Eastman’s straight-to-the-point suicide note took on a contemporary resonance: “My work is done. Why wait?”

Toronto photographer Robert Burley made it his business to record the strange death of film. In his superb, elegiac book The Disappearance of Darkness: Photography at the End of the Analog Era, and now in the exhibition of the same name opening at the National Gallery of Canada on Oct. 18, Burley’s text and images capture a world that dissolved in a swirl of ironies and incidents as evocative as George Eastman’s abrupt departure.

Burley was one of the first outside photographers allowed inside Kodak’s decommissioned Toronto plant—film-making factories, full of secret chemical processes, have never been camera-friendly places. Which is one reason most camera users never gave a moment’s thought to the vast industrial machine that provided their raw material. Burley’s images of factories abandoned or trashed or slated for destruction show the serried ranks of master rolls, transported in containers called coffins after their shape, each over a metre wide and three km long, with enough film to provide 70,000 24-exposure rolls. There would actually have been less to shoot in the factory in its glory days—a working plant operated in a chemical-protecting blackout: figuratively and literally, the film trade was cloaked in darkness.

And there is the final irony. Wherever Burley went to record the death throes of a factory—including the Kodak plant in Chalon-sur-Saône, France, the very birthplace of photography—others also gathered to take pictures. Except for Burley, operating his film camera, almost everyone—including the plant’s former employees—had a digital device.

Talking about the scale of the transition in his office at Toronto’s Ryerson University, Burley—an associate professor and distinguished landscape and architectural photographer whose previous books dealt with the Great Lakes and Chicago’s O’Hare Airport—argues that much more occurred than a simple change in image capture. There’s the loss of his traditional workspace—that’s why there are so many photos of abandoned darkrooms in his book—and of darkness itself: “I spend my days in front of a glowing screen, like anybody else.” More important is a change in the way we see images, because they are no longer physical objects that “age along with us.” At least, Burley notes, “when people flee their burning homes now they don’t have to worry about their photos. They are stored in the cloud or among the 220 billion images on Facebook, the world’s largest photo album.”

The change in form brought a change in perspective. “Digital is all about immediacy,” Burley says. “The image is constructed, distributed and consumed in the present.” Next, it’s manipulated. “Photos, which took some effort and commitment, were seen as a proof. Now we no longer trust them; they are so easily altered, unless they’re taken by machines like CCTVs—those we assume are truthful, because there is no human intervention.”

But there is no going back. It’s as though the world suddenly switched to electric cars, he says. “You can’t think, ‘I’ll just stick with my internal combustion engine.’ Not when there are no garages, no mechanics, no gas stations.” Holding up a small box of photographic paper, he adds, “This cost $5 not so long ago; now it’s $30. Colour-film photographers are riding on what’s left of Hollywood demand, and when the movies are completely digital, by 2015, that will be that.”

Seen & Heard: The first in a five-part series of articles showcasing Canadian arts and culture events