Robert Burley Photographs the End of Analog Photography

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In 2010, the Canadian photographer Robert Burley, and others, traveled to Parsons, Kansas, to commemorate the end of an era, and to get film developed. At the height of Kodachrome’s popularity, according to this New York Times article, the film was processed at 25 locations around the world. In 2009, when Kodak discontinued the equipment and chemicals required to process its film, Dwayne’s Photo Lab in Parsons was the only facility of its kind. For Burley, the shuttering of this lab in December 2010 was yet another example of what he had spent the previous five years documenting—in his words, “the story of an industry that was obliterated by the creative destruction of the digital age.”

Starting in 2005 at the Toronto Kodak plant slated for closure, Burley tracked the dismantling of color film processing as factories, photo labs, and studios were shut down, stripped, and sometimes even destroyed. The result is The Disappearance of Darkness, an elegy for “dark, chemical, and physical photography . . . [and] the abrupt and traumatic breakdown of a century-old industry that embodied photography’s material culture.”

The Kodak plant in Chalon-sur-Saône, France. Photograph by Robert Burley

This notion manifests starkly, and to great effect, in Burley’s photographs of the locations responsible for making the raw materials of Kodachrome film, and the machines that turned that film into negatives, slides, and prints, rendering the aesthetic sheen of 20th-century color photography. Photographs of empty rooms and warehouses echo an industry of the past; the sounds of assembly lines, forklifts, and hydraulics running 24 hours a day are not hard to imagine. There are also images that present an abundance of materials. One caption explains how master rolls of film were “some 54 inches wide by as much as two miles long. A typical master roll [would] produce approximately 50,000 rolls of 35mm film, or over forty rolls of 35mm motion picture film.” The towering rows of master rolls glinting in an Agfa warehouse in Belgium look futuristic, but the materials are now antiquated or, even worse, anachronistic.

All of Burley’s images drive home his thesis: “the material magic of photography is lost.” In one of the book’s essays, “Art and Commerce, Creativity and Industry,” Andrea Kunard writes, “Historically, photographers and the photography industry have had almost exclusive, mutually beneficial relationships. With the move to digital, key aspects of this relationship changed: the usurpation of the darkroom by Adobe Photoshop, for one.” What Burley and those who have rallied around him mourn is the loss of the physicality of the industry of photography—complex, carefully calibrated chemical reactions layered, rolled, and cut, most often in complete darkness.

A darkroom at Kodak Canada, Toronto. Photograph by Robert Burley

The irony, of course, is that until analog photography was on its way out, photographers of all stripes took these technological innovations for granted, thanks to savvy marketing. In order to make photography popular, industrial standardization championed by George Eastman was implemented in the name of accessibility and affordability. As Kunard reminds readers, photography “participated in, and shaped, consumer culture.” You could drop off your roll of film and pick up the prints and the negatives the following week. The instantaneous nature of photographic image collecting today has nothing to do with darkness—it is all light on a screen. If Kodachrome were still being processed, Burley never would have been able to take these photographs. But since the darkness has been illuminated, he converts the remnants of this bygone technology into symbols that should be used to help decipher the impact of digital photography, and to a subtler extent hints at the current relationship people have with photographic images that rarely are printed.

A gelatin silver print reproduction of Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s “View from the Window at Le Gras,” via the Harry Ransom Center

Catching the final glimpses of “photography at the end of the analog era,” which is also his book’s subtitle, Burley’s pursuit delivered him to places where the end had already arrived, and it is the absences that impart insight to this body of work. But in France, at a Kodak plant in Chalon-sur-Saône, Burley was lucky enough to witness poetic justice, and no finer place could have been chosen. In front of a crowd of dignitaries and onlookers, the building was scheduled for implosion, but after the dynamite went off, most of the plant remained standing. In 1827, in the very same town, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce invented heliography, creating the world’s first surviving photograph through photomechanical reproduction of an image etched in pewter.

The Disappearance of Darkness is testament to human ingenuity, and indifference. The physical scale at which photography functioned for decades is remarkable, as is the rate at which that scale was diminished and then destroyed. We are not far from the time, if we are not already there, when a person will not be able to reconcile how images of outsize factory buildings, networks of pipes, and loading docks relate to the creation of a photograph. That is Robert Burley’s ultimate point, and it is one very much worth bearing in mind, for you can’t be reminded about something that has already been forgotten.