The Disappearance of Darkness
The Disappearance of Darkness: Photography at the
End of the Analog Era by the Canadian photographer Robert
Burley is a carefully produced and edited collection of photographs
that represent the collapse of the analog photographic industry.
Over a period of a decade, Burley traveled the world to photograph
once powerful companies such as Kodak, Polaroid, Ilford and Agfa
spiraling into perpetual decline.
In the first instance, that decline is quite literally signified
by the destruction or abandonment of factories that produced
photographic paper or film. In parallel to the rise of digital
technologies, these products (and the workers that produced them)
became victim to a quickly shifting economy that saw no place for
'old' technologies. As people gather to witness the destruction of
Kodak buildings in places such as Rochester in upstate New York or
Chalon-sur-Saone in France - accredited with being the birthplace
of photography - Burley produces photographs that are at once laden
with nostalgia as much as they are matter-of-fact statements on an
industry in crisis.
The first image neatly foretells the narrative explored in the
rest of the book: it shows a 1960s style photo studio with several
black and white portraits on display in the shop window. The
photographs are produced and framed with great care, making
ordinary subjects look like Hollywood film stars. Yet a tiny sign
at the main door reads 'Art Photo Studio is closed due to
retirement. Owner'. The closed-down photo studio is perhaps less
emblematic for the decline of the photographic industry, than it is
a symbol to the respect and pride this industry once commanded. The
Kodak Head Office in Rochester, for instance, towers over the rest
of the landscape like a cathedral of commerce. Below its
magnificent structures, however, lies a city visibly scarred by the
collapse of a once proud company.
Burley's photographs also reveal the internal struggles that
Kodak et al were experiencing in the built-up to the
collapse of the photographic industry. Adjacent to the executive
entrance of a Kodak building in Toronto is a image display that
shows a woman wearing a yellow raincoat as she stands on the edge
of a cliff looking out towards the sea. Quite clearly, Kodak was
preparing itself for a storm as captured in this photograph from
2005. Directed at the executives entering the building, the sign
reads 'The next big idea is right in front of you', almost as if to
beg them to save the decline of the company. It was not to be. A
thousand dollar investment at the height of Kodak's stock price in
1997 now buys little more than a cup of coffee. If the woman hasn't
drowned in the sea, she is barely holding on to the edge of the
It is with considerable irony that all the photographs in the
book were produced with precisely the declining technology that it
also seeks to represent. Technical notes at the end of the book
give a breakdown of the analog processes used. In a sense, the book
represents a meta-photography - or a photography about photography.
The images suggest that photography has underwent such momentous
and wide-reaching shifts that the very definition of a 'photograph'
is also shifting. Is it an image that is framed and put on display?
Is it an image that is tangible and exchangeable? Or is it an image
that is posted, blogged, re-blogged and shared? Allow a child to
play with an iPad, allow it to scroll, zoom and flip photographs,
then the categorization of a photograph as a still image even
becomes debatable. In as much Burley's work represents the end of
an era and the collapse of an entire industry, his work also
alludes to a future that has yet to be determined.
Marco Bohr is a photographer, writer
and founder of visualcultureblog.com.