When Robert Burley attended the demolition of a Kodak factory in 2007, he watched people prepare to capture the building’s final moments using digital cameras and smartphones.
He was there with his 4-by-5-inch field camera, composing the scene from under a black cloth before exposing the sheet film. The antiquated process was slow and deliberate.
“I knew I was witnessing history,” Burley says. “These remarkable events were shocking, sad and ironic all at once.”
In a matter of seconds, the former Kodak factory was reduced to dust.
Since 2005, Burley has been documenting what he sees as the demise of analog photography in the transition to the digital age.
He started the project after discovering the Kodak Canada complex in his native Toronto was being shut down in response to the drop in the demand for film.
“I soon realized that Kodak Canada, now long gone, was the tip of the iceberg,” he says. “Over the next five years all of the photographic companies found themselves in an economic free fall, and most came crashing to the ground.”
After years of decline, the Eastman Kodak Co. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January and recently announced that the film portion of its iconic business was for sale.
Meanwhile, Polaroid stopped producing instant film in 2008 and sought bankruptcy protection for the second time in seven years.
But not all of the facilities Burley visited were going out of business. Some specialty shops were staying afloat, but it’s unclear how long film will continue to be produced on a smaller scale.
Despite the sudden collapse of the industry that has supported his career, he remains optimistic. He subscribes to media theorist Marshall McLuhan's idea that yesterday’s technology becomes today’s art form.
“It is a fascinating and exciting time to be a photographer, as the medium is redefined and reinvented,” Burley says.
His new book, "The Disappearance of Darkness: Photography at the End of the Analog Era," was recently published by Princeton Architectural Press.
A longtime architectural photographer, Burley’s images of abandoned film manufacturing plants serve as a record of a defining moment in the history of photography.
“To some degree, photographing these factories was like absorbing the death of a close, older relative: surprising, shocking, very sad, but at the same time – inevitable,” he says.
“We know nothing is forever, and this is one of the principle reasons we make photographs.”
- Brett Roegiers, CNN