Implosions of buildings 65 and 69, Kodak Park, Rochester, New York
October 6th, 2007
It is sad, but it is progress. I really feel that photographers lose the sense of the craft and artistic experience by not participating in the traditional methods of photography. All is digital now--too bad...you can't smell the electronic process or stain your hands.
"Photos of Film’s Demise: Empty Labs and Demolition Days Are Analog’s Farewell"
November 8th, 2012
When Robert Burley photographed Kodak Canada’s final employee meeting in the parking lot on the last day of manufacturing in 2005, he assumed it was an isolated act of corporate downsizing — the winding down of one facility to safeguard Kodak’s other operations. He now knows he was seeing the first domino fall. Two years later, Burley was in Rochester, NY, the spiritual home and headquarters of the once-giant analog film manufacturer.
“Kodak was blowing up one huge building after the other,” says Burley a photographer and associate professor at Ryerson University’s School of Image Arts in Toronto, Canada.
But the decimation of the film industry didn’t stop with Kodak. Burley stumbled into a multi-year project for which he was to photograph the demise of multiple companies.
“A year later I was in Boston photographing Polaroid factories being torn down. To be present at these events made me realize I was witnessing not only a radical change in my medium but also a dizzying moment in history.”
It has been a helter-skelter decline. Take Eastman Kodak, for example. It filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January 2012 and — as part of its restructuring – sold off all of its photography divisions including “the broadest portfolio of traditional photographic paper and still camera film products.” Since 2003, Eastman Kodak has closed 13 plants and 130 laboratories.
This week, Eastman Kodak won court approval to quit providing health and welfare benefits to U.S. employees, retirees and dependents. It will save the ailing company $10 million per month but leave 56,000 people high and dry.
“Individuals may see their life savings lost,” said U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Allan Gropper, who delivered the ruling, before going on to say that — in spite of the financial pain to retirees — the company’s move was legal and reasonable.
Burley has traveled the globe over a period of six years and photographed Ilford in London, AGFA-Gavaert in Belgium, Polaroid in the Netherlands and even Dwayne’s Photo in Kansas, which became known as the last lab to develop Kodachrome. The resulting project, Disappearance of Darkness, is a bittersweet visual eulogy to film, shot on the medium whose demise it documents.
“The companies — some of them over a century old — laid off tens of thousands of workers, demolished factories the size of steel mills and found themselves in an economic free fall as their customer base shrunk from millions to thousands almost overnight,” says Burley.
In 2000, U.S. consumers bought 19.7 million film cameras. By 2010, sales were below 250,000. Film sales peaked in 1999 with 800 million rolls purchased in the U.S. alone. But in 2011, Americans bought a mere 20 million rolls. In 2012, smartphone sales grew by 58 percent, while point-and-shoot sales dropped by 17 percent. The iPhone 4 is the most-used camera today.
“Today the shift to digital media is almost complete but it appears unlikely that any of these once powerful, profitable and innovative companies will adapt to the twenty-first century,” says Burley. “Digital technology has changed the way we live our lives and to some degree the demise of the photographic industry provided a touchstone for just how rapidly these dramatic changes have happened.”
A book of the project, The Disappearance of Darkness: Photography at the End of the Analog Era, has also been published this month. It’s a smartly designed new hardbound book featuring 71 of Burley’s large-format photographs.
“The book marks a point in time when photography – at least photography as practiced by the majority – ceased to be a physical medium,” says Burley. “Photographs are no longer material objects created on film or paper – they have become dematerialized data stored in a cloud somewhere else. This alters one of the photograph’s most important characteristics – it’s relationship to time and place.”
Part documentary, part devotional gesture, The Disappearance of Darkness includes essays of fantastic insight by Alison Nordstrom, curator at George Eastman House; François Cheval, chief curator of the Niepce Museum; and Andrea Kunard, associate curator of photographs at the National Gallery of Canada. There’s much to contemplate and as such the book is a photography nerd’s tome. Nordstrom writes:
“The advent of chemical photography was sudden and celebrated. [...] Perhaps no technological invention since movable type has so profoundly affected how and what we know or remember, and how we understand ourselves. Unlike the start of this phenomenom, however, the end has come, in T.S. Eliot’s words, ‘not with a bang but a whimper.’”
Even though Burley now sees the shuttering of former film manufacturers as “inevitable,” and even though he witnessed closures and demolition first-hand, he doesn’t yet know exactly what it all means.
“In another decade or two I think we’ll understand the exact nature of this fundamental change in photography,” says Burley. “How will this change our idea of the photograph as document, evidence or imprint of the real world? How will these changes affect the ways we capture, collect and store our personal and collective visual histories? What impact will these changes have on photography as an art form, a social or political tool, as a form of reportage? While my work doesn’t attempt to answer these questions directly I hope it at least provides a record and interpretation of photography at this significant moment in the medium’s history.”
According to Burley, disruptions like those generated by the digital transition will continue in a perpetual advance of imaging and technology.
“A camera is no longer just a camera,” says Burley. “It captures video, sound, GPS coordinates along with all kinds of other metadata. Just as the digital chip replaced film, some other device will soon supplant the chip and the idea of what a camera is and does.”
Neither the questions Burley faced in making Disappearance of Darkness nor his realization that the film industry is in its final throes have stifled his fond memories of film. He hopes that Kodak will continue to manufacture the beloved Kodak Tri-X black and white film, known for its speed, latitude and sharpness. But he knows it’s unlikely.
“Tri-X film has such an important place in photography’s history. It was the film of choice for Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams, Robert Frank,” says Burley. “It’s likely that all color photographic films and papers will disappear in the next five years. The movie industry is the last mass market to make the transition from film to digital but industry insiders suggest this will be complete by 2015.”
These are reflective times.
“In 10 years time, will I be able to show my students how Adams or Frank made a photograph?” wonders Burley.
Disappearance of Darkness: Photography at the End of the Analog Era
The photographic materials and systems I’ve used throughout my career are disappearing at an alarming rate. Over the last five years, companies such as Kodak, Agfa, and Polaroid have been pushed into an economic free-fall as the demand for their long-established products has evaporated. The end of the analogue era is evident in the recent closings and demolition of large-scale manufacturing facilities dedicated to the production of conventional photographic products.
During the past five years I have photographed numerous facilities in Canada, the United States, and Europe where blocks of silver were dissolved in nitric acid, mixed with the tissue of animals, and coated onto film and paper so the world could make pictures. The goal of my work is to explore the places where the alchemy of the photographic process was practised on a massive scale over the last century. The essential feature of these factories was, ironically, darkness: manufacturing took place in the absence of light—a characteristic that has defined the photographic process since it was first invented in 1839. The act of photographing is often associated with a desire to record something on the verge of change or disappearance. In this case, my subject is the medium itself.