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Robert Burley: “The Disappearance of Darkness” 

In "The Disappearance of Darkness," Canadian photographer Robert Burley explores the rapid dissolution of film manufacturing -- and film-related industries -- as digital photography technology became more commercially accessible to the masses in the mid-2000's. The show's work itself straddles the line between the two worlds; Burley shot the images on sheet film, then scanned in the negatives and printed the images with a digital printer.

City had the chance to interview Burley and the exhibition curator, Gaëlle Morel, about the work, how this transition mirrors the 19th century, and what bearing the shift has had on our relationship to the photographic image. This is an edited version of that conversation.

City: How did you initially detect the shift from film to digital technology?

Robert Burley: It was through all the consumer devices that just started to appear everywhere. There is a correlation between the early 21st century and early 20th century, when professional photographers were very specialized in what they did, and Eastman came out with this consumer device. It wasn't directed at them, it was directed at the everyman who wanted to make pictures of their families, or their vacations, or some obsession they had.

In 2007, Steve Jobs came up with this device which took all of these very clunky, cumbersome digital devices, and put them into a small, beautifully designed, irresistible thing that everybody just had to have.

I was just feeling my way through this very rapid transition. And that's one of the things that's so fascinating about it: how quickly it happened. You think of other technological transitions that have taken 10 or 15 years...this one really happened in about 5. So, it was just blinding speed. Some people think I had some great foresight, but it was really like my whole world started to crumble around me, to some degree.

City: What was your transition to incorporating digital technology like?

Burley: One of the reasons I photographed on traditional materials with this project was that I realized this was probably going to be the last opportunity to really work with it in this way. Not just with these materials -- I think I'll probably be able to get the materials for many years to come, but my own head was being rewired in terms of how pictures were being created and how they functioned in the world.

While I was doing this project, like everyone else, I was getting new Apple phones and computers, and the Internet was moving from being kind of frill, to being something that suddenly we all needed to have. Suddenly, regardless of what you did, you needed to have that global network in order to undertake any sort of professional or even recreational activity.

While all that was changing, I was trying to keep my feet in both worlds. I didn't want to lose my footing in this world that I knew really well, and had a strong history and emotional attachment to, but at the same time, what was going on was so interesting in the digital world, that I had to pay attention to that as well. In the last couple of years, I've been so fascinated with what you can do with digital that I'm not shooting with film very much.

I have another show in Toronto that is about 2000 square feet of wall vinyl. The idea is that photographs are no longer things that can be contained in frames, and hung discreetly on the walls. They are kind of these assemblages of data that have no limits, and can be anywhere and everywhere. I think that the relationship to the image is something that we're all just trying to negotiate on a day-to-day basis. And I don't think it's a story that's finished yet, I think the next five years will be just as interesting as the last five years.

City: What are your thoughts on the democratization of the medium?

Burley: It's really history repeating itself. There's a great essay by Alfred Stieglitz about the hand camera, which was really Eastman's Brownie camera. Here was Stieglitz, who was a very serious artist and intellectual, who was really fighting to have photography accepted as an art form, and suddenly George Eastman comes along with this device that allows anybody to make a picture.

I think what happened at that time was that the photographic artist was reinvented, and the photographic professional was reinvented. Suddenly professionals realized it was not just good enough to be able to create a sharp, good, clear picture. They had to be creative about that process, they had to be skilled in the way they made images. And the same thing is happening now; professionals are being recreated.

Morel: I think it shows also that being an artist is not just being a good technician. It's having an intellectual and conceptual project. If the technique is available for everybody, then what differentiates Bob from another very good technician? For me, it was the project, for somebody to have a real, clear idea, who wanted to take us on a journey.

City: One of your images shows a portrait studio that has gone out of business. Can you discuss other photo-related accoutrements that are rendered at least partially obsolete at this point?

Burley: My sister-in-law says "my photo album is Facebook." She loves it! And she's a photo album person. She's in her early 60's, and has really worked on creating photo albums of her family history. It's so interesting that these books, these physical objects that we'd keep in a place of honor in our homes -- which were the first things that we'd run out the front door with if our house caught on fire -- no longer exist. That transition hasn't been around long enough for us to fully understand it yet. But now, our family photographs are kept on the servers of profit-driven corporations. They own those photographs.

We no longer treasure pictures in the same way we once did. Because pictures used to cost money. When you bought film, you were really very thoughtful about how you used that roll of film. Photographs used to be a much more conscious process. You also had to go to a cupboard or a shelf to grab the camera if you thought, "Oh, this is a moment I want to remember. This is something I want to do a picture of." It was a ritual: getting people set up with the right lighting, because pictures didn't always turn out.

Not only do we make the pictures with little effort, but we can share them, immediately, to anyone in any part of the world. That has completely changed our relationship to photography as information. We also have this ability to see any event going on in the world from multiple perspectives, immediately, not only from photojournalists, but from people with their cell phones.

City: Since Kodak has announced bankruptcy, there has been a massive influx of professional photographers who have come to town to shoot the demise of Kodak and the aftermath. With how some of these projects were portrayed in the media, the term "ruins porn" comes to mind. Your project doesn't read like that, it feels more objective.

Burley: I'm so glad to hear that!

City: Why is objectivity important to you as an artist? As a documentarian, do you believe that true objectivity can really be achieved with photographs?

Burley: My favorite photographers are individuals who have managed to create what I think are very objective photographs. But I always recognize that I'm looking at the photographs of, say Eugène Atget. His photographs of Paris are an inspiration to me, because I think Atget had affection for that place, and also was making photographs in large part because it was changing. The Haussmann plan was being executed, and all of these old neighborhoods that he had grown up with and been familiar with, were being demolished. Or even the Bechers, who we think of as very conceptual artists, but there they are, documenting, in these beautifully descriptive images, water towers, or the industrial infrastructure of post-war Germany -- because, again, it's disappearing.

Both subjects of those artists -- the one street photography, the other industrial architecture -- were part of their own life histories. So for me, this was my history. I couldn't let this one go by. Being 50, this is the thing you realize -- you haven't given up on the world quite yet. You're able to see what's coming, but at the same time, you have this great view of what was there before. I think it's the first time that I had experienced a subject in that way. The materials were so much a part of my life as a photographer.

City: As somebody who is interested in documentation and storytelling, what do you consciously do to try to achieve objectivity? And what do you avoid doing?

Burley: The nature of this project is one where it is very deliberate. The nature of the view camera, which is really a 19th century system, is that it really makes you take your time, makes you study the world and think about it as you take pictures. The process of having made pictures, printing them, and putting them together physically, is very thoughtful, and something that you're very invested in, because it's expensive and time-consuming.

Morel: But you're also drawing from a documentarian-style tradition, where you have no distortion, where you have frontal views, lots of details, refined printing.

Burley: Yeah.

Morel: I don't believe in objectivity, but I believe there is a style that can be called documentary style, where you're using a type of aesthetic that is trying to present itself as a document. But it's an aesthetic more than something really objective. Bob chose the framing, the lighting, the exposure, the coloring, everything. It's his photograph. He's the subject. He's employing a very specific historical, really well-studied aesthetic, for a contemporary subject. But there's no objectivity, he's saying something very personal.

Burley: Yes. It's been so interesting, going through that first exhibition, having such a full-circle moment. When I began to study photography in 1975, there were two big things that happened: Steve Sasson invented that digital camera, and there was this wonderful exhibition that opened here called "New Topographics," with Lewis Baltz, Stephen Shore, the Bechers, Robert Adams. They were the first generation of photographers who used the medium's descriptive abilities, its character to create a window onto the world, but they all used it with this idea that, "this is a personal expression of how I see and feel about the world."

That exhibition and the book that came out of it created a whole tradition that I see myself as part of. I've tried to make it something that future generations can look at and understand about this particular time, but it's really seen through my eyes.

City: You've said that in 2005, you didn't really have prediction for 2007, or for what has happened since the iPhone. Do you have inklings about the future, at this point?

Burley: What I realize in my own work, is that it's very difficult to go back to the way I was making photographs in 2005, because not only has technology changed, but the world has changed along with it, and so has our relationship to the image.

With my new work for this Toronto exhibition, the model I'm using for that installation is these Google Earth images. What a remarkable shift in how we see the world around us, right? It's never one image, it's an assemblage of images that are created by robots...so we trust them. But they never even exist as singular images anywhere except on a server. When we access them, they're assembled for us, but even in that assemblage, there's all these new glitches that occur, disruptions in the images that result from the photo-merging technology.

How much longer will it be before the walls of our houses are no longer filled with framed images, but things that are drawn from servers that we can program? There are so many directions this can take.

City: It's true, and now with 3D printing...where is that even going to go?

Burley: I can't even go there! I have to stay in two dimensions!

City: How privileged is access to sheet film at the moment?

Burley: You can still get it. You go online to B&H in New York, and if it's still available there, it's still being made. If not, it's not being made. But places that process that film are getting harder to find. It's like having a gasoline-fueled car after everything's gone electric. Suddenly, there's no mechanics, no stations...all of the infrastructure's disappeared.

City: Can we talk about the rolling obsolescence of technology and the longevity of digital media?

Burley: When they first started making photographs in the 19th century, a problem was that they all faded away. They actually created a panel of a group of scientists to deal with this issue. Even when Eastman created his Brownie, there were all sorts of problems they had to work out that they didn't foresee. When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone, it didn't really work. There was a great story in the New York Times about how all of the developers from Apple who worked on the iPhone were so terrified during that demonstration, they had a bottle of scotch. And every time something worked, they all had a drink.

It's the nature of any new technology, that in the early phases, it doesn't really work. And photography only really started to work when Kodak got a monopoly, and said, "These are the standards." I've lost digital files because hard drives have crashed, or I've had them on physical CDs that break down. It's the nature of the beast.

How we're going to keep photographs in the future is a big problem that most museums are dealing with, because you can't just put them in a box and forget about them for 50 or 100 years. The nature of the technology is that they have to be maintained -- you need electricity. You need power to keep them there. And somebody has to check on them on a regular basis. And whenever there is a big technology shift, often formats have to be migrated from an old system to a new system.

So it's a huge question that still needs to be answered, but people are so enthusiastic about the technology that I think it keeps getting brushed under the carpet. We're so invested in it that we just have to make it work. It has to work now, there's no turning back.

City: Which part of this story was the most challenging to tell?

Burley: Photographing black. Darkrooms. Conveying that space where you used to make pictures is something that's so difficult to do. My artist workspace is completely changed from what it used to be.

"The Disappearance of Darkness" is on view at George Eastman House through January 4.

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