Robert Burley: The Disappearance of Darkness

Top photo: Robert Burley, Hallway in coating alley, Agfa-Gevaert, Mortsel, Belgium, 2007. Pigment print mounted on dibond © Robert Burley. Reproduction courtesy of the artist and the Ryerson Image Centre.

[T]he death of film photography and the birth of the digital age is the subject of Robert Burley’s The Disappearance of Darkness, an upcoming exhibition at the Ryerson Image Centre

The series depicts the closure of several film-manufacturing facilities against a backdrop of a new era of digital photo technologies. Burley, an associate professor at Ryerson’s School of Image Arts, also published his photographs in a book of the same name in 2012.

Gaëlle Morel is the exhibit’s curator.

“It’s a beautiful project about the demise of film and the celebration of digital. It’s really a declaration of love for the entire medium,” says Morel.

Burley began the project in 2005, as the use of digital cameras became more widespread than ever. He began visiting different film-production facilities that were forced to close, including Polaroid, Ilford and the Kodak plant in Toronto. Photographing both the inside and outside of the buildings, Burley also documented several demolitions.

The decline of film photography happened quickly in the early 2000s. In 1999, for instance, approximately 800 million rolls of film were sold; in 2006, sales dropped to a mere 204 million. Film manufacturing giants such as Kodak underestimated the prowess of a fast-changing technological and economic landscape, and had difficulties adjusting to the subsequent developments in the photography world.

Even now, the sales of point-and-shoot cameras are seeing a steady decline, a direct result from the rise of smartphones with built-in capabilities. Burley was able to document these rapid changes firsthand.

“We’ve been working on the exhibit for three or four years,” says Morel.

The Disappearance of Darkness first made its debut at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa last October, and later at the Musée Nicéphore Niépce in Chalon-sur-Saône, France; still currently running.

Showcased in the Ryerson Image Centre’s main gallery, the exhibit highlights the diversity of Burley’s photographs, which take the form of large and small-scale works, colour and black-and-white, pictures arranged in grids and screens with video loops. Many of Burley’s photographs stylistically emphasize the closed and secretive nature of the empty buildings and their many dark rooms.

Though film and digital photography each have their own advantages and disadvantages, the exhibit’s message is simple: digital is here to stay.

“We’re using it every day. Digital has fantastic qualities and we’re only at the beginning. But the thing I like most about it is that we don’t know where it’s going. You’re not exactly sure of its limitations,” says Morel. “So we don’t know what it’ll be like in 50 years.”

The Disappearance of Darkness opens on Jan. 22 at the Ryerson Image Centre, and will run until April 13.

(images below)

02_BURLEY_View of Building 7 and 11 From Roof of Building 9
Robert Burley, View of Building 7 and 11 from the roof of Building 9, Kodak Canada, Toronto, Canada, 2006. Pigment print mounted on dibond © Robert Burley. Reproduction courtesy of the artist and the
Ryerson Image Centre.

Kodak_07-060d 001
Robert Burley, Light lock to cutting room, Building 10, Kodak Canada, Toronto, Canada, 2006. Pigment print mounted on dibond © Robert Burley. Reproduction courtesy of the artist and the Ryerson Image Centre.