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Robert Burley with one of his his cameras in Toronto, November 16, 2012. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
Robert Burley with one of his his cameras in Toronto, November 16, 2012. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

photography

Robert Burley: Behind the Silver Curtain Add to ...

Suppose they gave a revolution and only one professional photographer came …

Robert Burley felt he was living that scenario on more than one occasion between 2005 and 2011 as he trekked his Toyo 45A fold-up field camera and tripod from place to place. No, the Toronto-based photographer wasn’t the sole chronicler of, say, the wellsprings of the Arab Spring or the roots of Obamania or the brains behind the Call of Duty video game series. Rather, he was photographing nothing less than the death of photography itself. Or, more precisely, the “obliteration” (his word) of the chemical epoch of photography, the one that began in 1827 when Joseph Nicéphore Niépce of France produced the first known photograph, on a coated pewter plate, and ended … well, when did it end? For convenience and symbolism’s sake let’s peg it at Jan. 19, 2011: the day Dwayne’s Photo Lab, founded in 1956 in Parsons, Kan., processed the last-ever rolls of the fabled film that for decades gave us “those nice bright colours/the green of summers,” Kodachrome.

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Cameras continue to be sold, of course, and pictures taken, more so than ever before, thanks to the ubiquity and (relative) ease of digital technology. But it’s come at a cost, namely the obsolescence of the vast infrastructure of chemicals, film, papers, canisters, darkrooms, drop-offs, drying rooms, factories, trucks and technicians previously essential to photo-taking, photo-making and the manufacture of the emotional attachment that comes with physical things. Sometimes it seems as if this revolution took about as long as the time it once took to load a 24-exposure roll of 400 ASA Tri-X colour film onto the rear sprockets of a Pentax single-lens reflex camera, and with about as much fanfare. Luckily, Robert Burley was there to capture the fall and now Princeton Architectural Press, in association with Toronto’s Ryerson Image Centre, has put 71 of his pictures into an elegant, often elegiac book provocatively titled The Disappearance of Darkness: Photography at the End of the Analog Era. A touring exhibition of the work begins next fall at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

Trained as an architecture photographer, a photography professor at Ryerson University for the last 15 years with numerous well-received books and exhibitions to his credit, Burley came to his project through a combination of serendipity and intuition. For several years he was the Ryerson co-ordinator of the prestigious Kodak Lecture Series that brought prominent photographers and curators to the campus – a position that gave him regular contact with Eastman Kodak Canada executives. In early 2005, he was told some “shocking” news: Kodak was discontinuing all manufacturing in Toronto that year and permanently closing Kodak Heights, the four-hectare industrial complex in the city’s Mount Dennis neighbourhood that had been in continuous operation since the First World War. “I immediately thought, This is a big part of Toronto’s history, my history, photographic history,” Burley recalled the other day. “And I almost as immediately asked, ‘Is anyone photographing any of this?’” Told no, he put in a request to be that chronicler. A few months later he was handed a pass and told: “You can go anywhere you want, anywhere. Just be careful.”

This was a decisive moment of sorts for Burley. Two years, even a year previous, Kodak would never have granted that level of access to anyone. “Photography companies were incredibly, notoriously secretive,” he explained. “Plant workers used to talk about ‘working behind the Silver Curtain.’” And no one worker ever had a complete overview as to how most of the film products were made.” Giving an outsider carte blanche to wander among and in the 18 buildings on Kodak Heights – which Burley did on and off for more than a year – was, he laughed, akin to “announcing the Cold War is over, the Berlin Wall had come down and Checkpoint Charlie was open.”

For Burley, the demise and eventual destruction of Kodak Heights were, in some respects, “predictable. The big market for these film companies had always been consumers and they were quickly shifting over to digital cameras in a big, big way,” while film was becoming more of an artist’s medium. Yet while there may have been an inevitability to Kodak closing its main Canadian branch plant, surely, he thought, its world headquarters in Rochester, N.Y. were secure. Hadn’t the first digital camera been invented there? Didn’t it have a permanent labour force numbering in the tens of thousands? Wasn’t Kodak in 2005 ranked higher than Apple in the Fortune 500? “The idea of Kodak going bankrupt was just crazy,” said Burley.

However, in short order, Eastman Kodak announced that starting in summer 2006 it would, over two years, demolish more than 50 buildings at its Kodak Park plant in Rochester and, to lessen losses reportedly in the billions, sell off numerous offices and warehouses and lay off thousands of employees.

Burley attended and photographed two of four scheduled major implosions, the first in mid-September 2007, the next in early October. They were strange, irony-rich experiences. While hundreds showed up, of course, to witness and photograph the events, Burley was, he thinks, probably the only professional photographer on-site using a film camera. This was a surprise since “I thought every photo nerd in the world would come to these things. Maybe it was just too sad for a lot of people to contemplate.” In the meantime, though, his fellow spectators, many of them former Kodak employees, were busy memorializing these end-of-Kodak moments with camcorders, cellphones and Nikons – the very digital devices that had killed their jobs and were wreaking the destruction before them.

From this point, Burley started to hear of more looming demolitions or evacuations of once-mighty photo factories, not just in North America, but in Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium and France, each of which he duly and dutifully recorded. He even visited Dwayne’s Photo Lab in late December 2010. One of his book’s most poignant sections is the photographs of the attempted implosion, in December 2007, of the Kodak-Pathe Building in Chalon-sur-Saône in Burgundy – the very city in which Niépce took and produced the world’s first surviving photograph. “Attempted” because the explosives failed to fell the 50-year-old building and another attempt, this one successful, had to be scheduled two months later.

At 55, Burley likes to call himself “a straddler between the worlds of analog and digital,” and confesses he’s still working through his feelings about the epoch that shaped his career and then, after a seemingly invincible 150 or so years, appeared to go with the wind. He acknowledges the many advantages of digital so “it’s not as though I’m locking myself in my darkroom and weeping into my developer and fixer trays.” At the same time, “the more that analog disappears,” he laughed, “the more you desire to be part of it.”

This was brought home keenly this fall while Burley was teaching a course at Ryerson on the photographic print. Many of the course’s students he described as “true digital natives,” without any experience of film or the dark room. But they’re finding the analog world “so exotic and so magical [that] through their eyes I’m seeing what used to be something very familiar, almost mundane in a redefined way. Both the analog and digital worlds are new to me now.”

In the meantime, Burley plans to continue taking photographs in the composed, frank, matter-of-factly elegant way of his image-making heroes August Sander, Eugene Atget and Bernd and Hilla Becher – artists who “always tried to look at something very dispassionately through the camera lens but whose reasons for looking were always based on a kind of affection for the person, the face, the place, the thing they were memorializing.”

“Because I want people in the future to know this world I’ve known about,” he concluded, “you’re careful about how you describe things with pictures. You want it to be accurate, you want it to be true but you want it to be your experience at the same time.”

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