Kodak Lecture Series: Robert Burley

Robert Burley. Photo by Sam Yohannes.

[F]or photographer Robert Burley, the world changed forever in a powerful way when digital photography became accessible and popular. He captured the aftermath of digital photography’s emergence inside the world’s empty and crumbling analogue film factories for his latest project, The Disappearance of Darkness.

Robert Burley spoke in front of an audience of nearly 200 on Thurs. Jan. 30 at Ryerson University, to talk about his career path and The Disappearance of Darkness, which is on display at the Ryerson Image Centre gallery until April.

Burley’s formal relationship with photography began when he was a student at Ryerson University in the late ‘70s. He remembered feeling the excitement of photography’s emerging recognition in the art world.

“The arts journals were starting to focus on photography in a really intensive way,” Burley said.

He gravitated toward landscapes.

After graduating in the early ‘80s, his work became a bit more experimental.

He began photographing installations he made, where realistic miniatures were placed beneath an array of stage lights. The off-kilter proportions would play with perspective in the viewer’s mind.

“I realized that I could make photography tell the truth and tell a lie at the same time,” Burley said.

He eventually returned to landscapes. He looked to the Don Valley in Toronto for his first of many coloured projects to follow. Burley also extensively photographed the O’Hare Airfield in Chicago, which he has coined “Chicago’s Versaille.”

The analogue photography that Burley became familiar with had not changed in significant ways in nearly a century. But at the turn of the new millennium, digital photography began to emerge, bringing with it grave consequences for analogue photography and its support system.

“People thought a company like Kodak that had been around for a century would be around for a very long time,” said Burley.

But as digital photography became more popular, companies like Kodak began to suffer. The desire to photographically record the historical closing of factories, which supported the existence of photography for decades, was the driving force for Burley behind starting The Disappearance of Darkness in 2005.

As the project got going, Burley said he realized he knew very little about how film was made.

“The world of photography was a world of secret recipes. Not even employees knew the exact properties of how film was made,” he said.

Burley explored his own relationship with analogue photography as he explored thousands of square feet of empty darkrooms around the world for a number of years. Over time, factories were no longer just closing, but being imploded for demolition.

When Burley was photographing the scheduled implosion of a film factory in France, he remembered feeling it was “the death of photography in its birthplace.”

“Each time I made one of these trips it was like, ‘Okay, it’s really over. It’s done,’” said Burley.

Crowds of people would gather to witness the implosion of these factories.

“The great irony was they were all recording it with digital devices,” said Burley.

The project came to an end in 2010, and Burley has written a book titled The Disappearance of Darkness to tell of his experiences creating the exhibition.

“We know something big has happened. We watched it happen. But now we’re all sort of in this fog, waiting to see what’s next,” said Burley.