In this installment of our BOOKMARKED column, contributor Collin Sundt speculates and reminisces on the fate of film photography in the digital era. Looking through the work of Robert Burley, whose website includes an archive documenting the termination of film production plants around the world, Sundt also notes what is lost socially, ancillary to the material itself. The websites mentioned can be found here:
I leave tabs open as reminders to myself — references or links to things I might, could, or should be doing. Often, these sites serve as surrogate memorials, remaining open only so that I can allow myself to feel better by acknowledging that attention is being paid, and that I have a plan. A part of me is invariably trying to forget, to ignore the ignored, and leave behind the burden of everything I cannot or simply will not do.
I track the memory usage of my web browser. My computer is showing its age, and it is usually these unread, unexplored tangents that bog down its ever-shrinking resources. It serves to further remind me of all that I might be doing. For months now, lurking in the background, I have had a tab open to the personal website of the photographer Robert Burley, who for five years documented the demise of analog image making. Burley traveled around the world photographing what amounted to a literal dematerialization of his chosen medium. Captured in his photographs is the corporate contraction experienced by all of the giants of the industry. There is the never-ending stream of building implosions at the Kodak Park in Rochester and the simply deserted factories of the bankrupt Polaroid, companies both decimated by the rapid shift to digital imaging. This shift proved inevitable, and yet, caught so many entirely off guard. Although the finality of the transition was never quite clear while it was unfolding, now, after the buildings have fallen and the thousands of layoffs completed, Burley’s images serve as a succinct summary of this abandonment of the analog.
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about this transformation of technology; I attended art school during the thick of it, to study photography, and watched as it unfolded. At times, I felt like I was being abandoned by my own medium, falling behind in the future I had always embraced. As it no doubt is for many in college, the alchemical thrill of photography was nearly extinguished in me, the sheer magic of watching images emerge from the baths was something that played little role in the work I found myself making. Preoccupation with craft proved to be the undoing of many of my friends, lost in the labs spending hours upon hours in overly complicated modes of printing, making perfect, airless photographs. I fought against such elaborate production in my own work: I wanted something else from my images, a reason for the photography to have occurred. The weight of technicality is a burden not easily shifted in the making of photographs; it’s an inescapable fact of the medium that many can never seem to reconcile their work with. This fundamental problem has, of course, been discussed to no end, always to rear its head every decade or so, critically.
Such are the problems of art school. I never entirely resolved my concerns with craft, and my work most likely reflects this. Perhaps these are the building blocks of many photographers’ educations. I can only speak to my own experience, but I will say that there were many questions that certainly should have been asked of us as students, but were not. All artistic mediums, to varying degrees, contain their own material-based justifications, an inherent logic to their representative ends and uses. Photography obviously has its own, and yet we constantly ask for these once-simple definitions to be expanded and reconsidered.
This compulsion to define the medium is further complicated by our world’s full-scale digitization, and now these conversations often shift toward this electronic inevitability faced by photography. While the allure of the darkroom seems to be something that many fondly remember, few speak of it. Rather, when it is invoked, the analog era is employed as an all-encompassing nostalgia, and merely another emblematic loss of the well-worn past, demolished for a harshly gleaming replacement. In the wake of prolific, all-seeing, skill-less iPhone photography, such an assessment is inevitable, but also understandable in light of the endless of hardware and software upgrades we must all take part in, brought on by corporate-imposed planned obsolescence. The past, as we remember it, was never plagued by such artificial limitations.
There is something both wonderful and deeply depressing about this act of photographing the systems and places central to the development of photography, yet now no longer needed for its practice. Appropriately, the final venue for the current traveling exhibition of Burley’s photographs in the United States is the George Eastman House, named for the founder of the now much diminished Eastman Kodak, and the oldest museum dedicated to photography. In 1932, faced with severe disabilities, Eastman chose to end his own life, leaving behind a legendarily brief suicide note, now viewable in his namesake museum’s permanent collection. “My work is done, why wait?” Eastman wrote; could there be a more chillingly upbeat assessment of death?
The month before I started in art school, Kodak announced the discontinuation of traditional black-and-white photographic paper. The company’s inexorable slide into insolvency over the last decade was a protracted comedy of corporate errors, with each misstep launching several more, a latticework of insurmountable loss forming with each futile restructuring. Following this saga, I found it to be one of the more depressing episodes in the recent history of photography; in Kodak’s unraveling, I see my own failures reflected back at me. Try as I might to justify the upgrade, I know that for my purposes, there is little that a new camera could do that my long-outmoded one cannot. I see in Kodak’s failure of vision the fate of many of the things I care very much about — a broader, dark renunciation of possibility.
Burley’s photographs are laden with the latent potential that compels many to take their own, an analog security that can’t easily be replicated. In one image of a former Agfa film factory storage room, huge master spools of film are stacked upon racks, awaiting their final coating and cutting before being packaged as 35mm rolls. The spools stretch out into a florescent-lit horizon, making clear the incredible capacities once required to supply our unlimited desire to capture images on film. A part of me that pines for unchecked progress can dismiss these documents of a world that is rapidly being lost, and firmly place my faith in the perfected vision of cloud-powered futurity. There is another part, though, that finds such collectivism abhorrent, a terrifying disfiguration of placid continuity. This part longs to know the final destination of those prospective rolls of film, through chemical transformation, and it’s the part that believes in a tangible reality, and discards the well-marketed replacement.