In 2005, when Robert Burley learned of Eastman Kodak’s decision to close its Canadian branch in response to the diminishing demand for celluloid film, he heard the dying breaths not only of a brand, but also of an industry and a medium. His immediate impulse was to document the manufacturing facilities of Kodak and other companies before they were sold or reduced to rubble. He photographed locations personally meaningful to him, as an artist who knew little about the actual dark industry—dark both literally, in its production of light-sensitive materials, and figuratively, as a once-profitable industry built on closely guarded patents and secrecy. The project stretched over six years and turned into an international tour, with stops at Eastman Kodak in Rochester, New York; the Ilford Company, the black-and-white film manufacturer based in Britain; Chalon-sur-Saône, France, the birthplace of photography; Polaroid’s Massachusetts factory; and Dwayne’s Photo in Parsons, Kansas, the last lab to develop a roll of Kodachrome.
The Disappearance of Darkness: Photography at the End of the Analog Era (Princeton Architectural Press; $50) is a selection of Burley’s photographs, accompanied by his textual commentary and introductory essays written by three curators based in some of the locations Burley visited. Though he writes that his project may be part eulogy, Disappearance is more autopsy than obituary. The photographs are cold and industrial in their subject matter and aesthetic. Grays, blacks, whites and greens dominate the record of factory exteriors. The starkness of cement and metal is emphasized by the space between the photographer and his recurring subject, the distances filled by dull gray parking lots, cracked and vacant. A few shots show former Kodak employees and bystanders at building demolitions, taking pictures themselves (Burley is quick to point out that his was one of the few cameras loaded with film). The truly mournful photographs, more moving than the empty offices, abandoned warehouses, or chemicals and wires in disarray, are those that emphasize the apparitional absence of workers: the employee identification board of a Polaroid plant in the Netherlands; a lone sweater by the empty cubicles at Kodak Canada in Toronto.
Disappearance is an impressionistic investigation of the film industry—the local economies it once sustained, the many thousands of people it employed (including generations of family members), the process by which its increasingly scarce products are manufactured. Yet some of the contributors to Disappearance remain sanguine about the technological changes that are making celluloid film a rarity. In an accompanying essay, Andrea Kunard, curator at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, explains that the introduction of the handheld camera in the late nineteenth century disrupted what had been a relatively stable photography industry based around the commercial studio. The new technology democratized the form, drawing new lines between amateur and professional, art and commerce. Plus ça change…
The cultural transition from analog to digital—from the material world to a virtual one—echoes what Kunard calls the “duality of presence and absence that informs much of photography.” In this sense, digital photography is an intensification of the paradox that has marked photography all along. But the transition to comprehending an image as intangible information is not the only effect of photography’s departure from the material world.