Toronto artist Robert Burley is currently documenting the fate of chemical photography, recording the abandonment and demolition of various Kodak plants. The films, papers and processing chemicals these factories produced will soon be obsolete, although Burley himself is still physically printing images from negatives, albeit ones he edits digitally. The most notable of Burley's large, highly detailed colour photographs shows the implosion of buildings 65 and 69 at Kodak Park in Rochester, N.Y., where a crowd that includes people who worked in the plant busily snap pictures of its demise on their digital cameras. Whatever sacrifices it may demand, technology is irresistible.
A giant mural of this hugely ironic image - created thanks to digital technology, of course - now greets anyone who enters the courtyard of Toronto's Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art on Queen Street West. It is there for Contact, the month-long, city-wide photography festival that launched this week, and it serves as an introduction to the issues MOCCA is raising in an international group show entitled Between Memory and History: From the Epic to the Everyday. Photography, the family historian, court painter, official scribe and crusading journalist of the 20th century, has penetrated the 21st century in ways that Kodak founder George Eastman himself could hardly have dreamed. In MOCCA's second year providing a focal point for Contact (now the largest photography festival in the world), curators Bonnie Rubenstein and David Liss address this year's festival theme of memory and history, provocatively asking where exactly photography is leading us, cellphones and Coolpix in hand.
The answer provided by the German artist Thomas Ruff is a dark one. He is represented by three huge, heavily pixelated images of familiar scenes identified only by such uninformative titles as JPEG BD01. One is a massive skyscraper in some sprawling new city - Dubai, perhaps? Another is an iceberg, melting too precipitously, one would guess. A third is a building in some Middle Eastern city, collapsing, violently, one assumes. These photos, which Ruff lifts from the Internet before he exaggerates their disintegration into pixels on the one hand and enlarges to the size of monumental history painting on the other, speak directly to the false relationship that the ubiquitous image can create between the viewer and actual experience.
On a lighter note, the British photographer Martin Parr also investigates the effect of photography's banality on lived experience in an amusing but increasingly misanthropic series featuring various camera-toting tourists pictured everywhere from the pyramids at Giza to Las Vegas, where they have their picture taken by a fake gondolier in front of a fake Venice.
In direct contrast to these approaches, demanding we see rather than pointing out that we don't, the French photographer Luc Delahaye positions himself as something of a super-journalist, recording in penetrating detail the whole scene. He is represented here by a photograph of the Jenin refugee camp on the West Bank shortly after the Israeli attacks of 2002. The photo records the rubble of concrete and steel with both impressive sweep and minute detail. In an age highly skeptical of journalistic objectivity, perhaps it is a picture that will inevitably be read as an indictment of Israel, but in truth it shows nothing of the motivations and little of the suffering on either side of the dispute. The people in the photograph, seen from a great distance, are not tearing their hair nor weeping, but rather walking, rather like tourists themselves, through the ruins of their city. In recalling the grand painting of centuries past, the image points to the mercilessness of history itself, rather like Brueghel's famed image of a tiny Icarus falling from the sky as an oblivious peasant below goes about his plowing.
Has photography then completely supplanted painting in the role of historical and political record? In much more emotionally directive work, the Israeli photographer Adi Nes answers with a resounding yes, posing friends and neighbours in the guise of famous figures from art. With Hagar, he mimics Dorothea Lange's famed image of a migrant mother in the Depression, perfectly reproducing the original's notion of nobility in suffering. If that exercise seems a trifle artificial, with Abraham and Isaac, the image of a homeless man pushing a young boy in a shopping cart, Nes achieves something more moving: making their plight seem real and important by imbuing it with the grandeur of art.
These images speak to great events and communal experiences, but at the other end of the spectrum photography not only makes the far-flung instantly accessible, it also makes the intensely private instantly recordable. Perhaps, as we all erect our personal webcams, the future of photography lies much more in the direction that the American artist Nan Goldin has pioneered with her impromptu portraits of herself and her friends. The MOCCA exhibit includes Heartbea t, a 14-minute slide show of various couples, mostly straight, one gay, some with children, often naked, in bathtubs, smoking cigarettes, nursing a baby, travelling by train, swimming and making love.