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 cliff.
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. III Originally published on the foam blog.
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