Parting Shots

The Last Days of Film Photography: Robert Burley Captures Industry’s End (Photos)

In The Disappearance of Darkness, the photographer caught the final moments of the infrastructure that produced rolls of film. A look at what digital cameras wrought.

Robert Burley

Robert Burley

“Art Photo Studio: Closed Due to Retirement, Toronto, Ontario, 2005”

In 2005, Robert Burley took his big sheet-film camera and started to document the fading world of analog photography, shooting the film factories of Kodak, Polaroid, and Agfa as they began to close or be demolished. By the time the campaign came to an end this year, the film that Burley needed to make his shots was getting harder and harder to find. "I started to feel this would be the last project I could make in this way," he said in a video. Princeton Architectural Press has just released a book with 71 of Burley's images, The Disappearance of Darkness: Photography at the End of the Analog Era. This gallery presents a sampling of pictures from it, along with Burley's words on some of them.

Robert Burley

“Dwayne's Photo Lab, Parsons, Kansas, December 30, 2010”

"The end of the medium’s longest running product, Kodachrome film, would play itself out in Parsons, Kansas, a small town in the American Midwest—a three-hour drive from the closest international airport. A family-run business, Dwayne’s was the last photography lab in the world to process the iconic transparency film. ... Kodachrome required specialized equipment and processing chemistry that was discontinued by Kodak in 2009. One year later, on an unseasonably warm day at the end of December, Dwayne’s accepted Kodachrome for processing for the last time, with a cut-off time of noon. ... The last rolls of film received that day were run through the Kodachrome processor at 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday, January 19, 2011."

Robert Burley

“View of Kodak Head Offices From the Smith Street Bridge, Rochester, New York 2008”

"At its peak in the 1980s, Kodak employed more than 60,000 people in Rochester, New York .... Over the course of the 20th century the city became known as “Smugtown,” in part because its economy seemed invincible. ... The first rumblings of trouble for Kodak came in the early 1990s, when the company began to face stiff competition from overseas, and embarked upon disastrous forays into new products and businesses. By 2000, the digital revolution and the subsequent huge drop in demand for traditional films and papers had pushed the company into economic free-fall. By 2011, Kodak employed fewer than 7,000 people in Rochester, and was struggling to transform itself into a digital company."

Robert Burley

“Implosions of Buildings 65 and 69, Kodak Park, Rochester, New York [#1] OCTOBER 6, 2007”

 

 

Robert Burley

“Nathan Lyon's Darkroom, Rochester, New York, 2009”

 

 

Robert Burley

“After the Failed Implosion of the Kodak-Pathe Building GL, Chalon-sur-Saone, France, December 10, 2007”

"It was only fitting that Kodak would establish a manufacturing facility in Chalon, the city that claimed to have invented photography. ... When Kodak announced the facility would be closed in 2006, it was a shock not just to the city’s economy, but its citizens as well. On a gray December morning in 2007, crowds gathered to watch the death of photography in its birthplace. Photography refused to go quietly. After the demolition team had set off the 950 kilograms of explosives placed at the base of the building, only a portion of the structure came down. An embarrassed group of Kodak executives were forced to schedule a second attempt in February 2008, which successfully ended the company’s presence in Niépce’s city."

Robert Burley

“Film Warehouse, Agfa-Gevaert, Mortsel, Belgium 2007”

"The small rolls that photographers use (or used) in their cameras start out as enormous master rolls manufactured to high standards in a very few specialized facilities around the world. These rolls are some 54 inches wide by as much as 2 miles long. ... This Agfa warehouse contains an estimated 1,500 master rolls of film—enough to make 73,500,000 rolls of 24-exposure 35mm film."

Robert Burley

“Interior of Building W1, Polaroid, Waltham, Massachussetts 2009”

"Polaroid had its headquarters and main research labs in Cambridge, Massachusetts, while the factory complexes were located outside the city in Waltham and Norwood. Even the factory and offices were constructed to reflect Polaroid’s reputation as an incubator for ideas: employees dressed casually and worked in a handsomely designed environment.... The Waltham campus was situated on a 120-acre site that was exquisitely landscaped; the employee cafeteria was designed by the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. The Waltham facility was closed in 2008 when Polaroid, after its second bankruptcy in 10 years, announced that it would discontinue the production of all its instant films. Once having employed more than 15,000 people in Massachusetts, the Polaroid Corporation was reduced to a workforce of 1,500 by 2010."

Robert Burley

“Employee Identification Board, Polaroid, Enschede, The Netherlands 2010”

"After the Polaroid Corporation announced its plans to stop manufacturing instant films in 2008, a group of employees at the company’s plant in the Netherlands got together to create a scheme for re-starting production. Led by Polaroid scientist André Bosman and Austrian entrepreneur Florian Kaps, the newly formed company was aptly named 'The Impossible Project' (IP). Supported by private investors and the enthusiasm of Polaroid fans worldwide, Kaps, Bosman, and a group of workers set a goal of reintroducing a new instant film within two years."

Robert Burley

“Film, Ilford, Mobberley, United Kingdom 2010”

"The Ilford Company first introduced flexible roll film in 1915, and today specializes in manufacturing black-and-white photographic materials. ... Unlike complicated, multi-layered color films, black-and-white entails coating a clear sheet of film with a single light-sensitive layer of silver salts suspended in gelatin. In the twenty-first century most of film’s applications have been usurped by faster, cheaper, and more flexible digital technologies. One of the last remaining markets for film is one that embraces its very limitations: artists. If film is to survive into the digital era, it is likely that it will do so in its simplest and original form, black-and-white, and be manufactured solely as an artist’s material."

Robert Burley

“Warehouse and Photo-Chemistry Building, Ilford, Mobberley, United Kingdom 2010”

Robert Burley

“End of Employee Meeting, West Parking Lot, Last Day of Manufacturing Operations, Kodak Canada, Toronto June 29, 2005”

"In 2003, the sales of digital cameras worldwide surpassed those of film cameras for the first time. By April 2004, after a dramatic decline in film sales, Eastman Kodak was delisted from the Dow Jones Industrials, a position the company had held for 74 years. ... The next steps were wider-reaching: the multinationa began closing down its numerous manufacturing complexes on four continents, and laying off tens of thousands of employees. On December 9, 2004, Kodak Canada held a meeting with its employees to inform them that the plant would be closed, decommissioned, and demolished in a matter of months. On the last day of manufacturing, June 29, 2005, the workers met in the West Parking Lot to have a group photo taken. After a photographer in a helicopter hovering above the site had captured the image, they picked up gift bags filled with Kodak products, and went home."

Robert Burley

“Darkroom, Building 3, Kodak Canada, Toronto 2005”

"Although some photographic films and papers could be handled in subdued ('safe') light, most films were manufactured, cut, and packaged in absolute darkness. ... The building interiors were divided into a complex series of hallways and entrance and exit passages to accommodate the traffic of workers who had developed an equally complex system for working in, and finding their way through these dark areas without incident. While the Kodak Company had a long history of employing blind workers who were at ease in the pitch dark, most others whistled or called 'Watch out!' to their peers."

Robert Burley

“Employee Darkroom Area, Building 9, Kodak Canada, Toronto 2009”

Robert Burley

“Former Toronto Film Studios, Proposed Site of New Wal-Mart, Toronto, Ontario 2011”