Culture | Mois de la photo: The great darkroom in the sky

Robert Burley’s Photographic Proof at the CCA

Robert Burley’s public installation, Photographic Proof, offers Montrealers one last glimpse at a dying monument: Polaroid Instant Film. The piece takes the form of a black and white photographic mural that stretches across the north side of the Canadian Centre for Architecture building. Framed to look like an enormous strip of Polaroid type 55 film, the mural captures a sombre crowd gathered to watch the 2007 demolition of the famous Kodak-Pathé plant in Chalon-sur-Saône, France.

Burley’s choice of medium carries a special significance due to Polaroid’s recent decision to terminate the production of instant film. The last rolls currently in existence are slated to expire within the next month, affording Burley a slim window in which to produce art based on the endangered film. Photography, he observes on his web site, often strives to “record something on the verge of change or disappearance. In this case, my subject is the medium itself.”

Indeed, the death of Polaroid film is but one symptom of a consumer market overwhelmingly geared toward digital photography. In recent years, an increasing number of analog films and cameras have been shelved in order to make room for emerging digital technologies. This past summer, for example, Eastman Kodak Company shipped another of the world’s photographic icons, Kodachrome Color Film, to the glue factory. Originally the first colour film to breach the commercial market, Kodachrome went on to give us Super 8 motion film, Steve McMurray’s National Geographic portrait of the “Afghan Girl,” and Paul Simon’s 1973 hit song “Kodachrome.”

Foreseeing “the end of an analog era,” Burley examines this trend in The Disappearance of Darkness, an exhibition that appears alongside Photographic Proof at the CCA from September 11 to November 15. The exhibition consists of six chromogenic prints drawn from a larger project which documents the destruction of facilities that once produced analog film and equipment.

But while the exhibition achieves its goal – to preserve a record of “the places where the alchemy of the photographic process was practised” – it fails to showcase the advantages and unique beauty of analog photography. Unlike Photographic Proof, The Disappearance of Darkness conveys neither the aesthetic appeal nor the vibrant warmth of film. The exhibition’s dreary sterility is exemplified by “AGFA-Geveart Film Plant, Antwerp, 2007,” a spartan photograph that depicts the factory’s steel face rising against a leaden sky. Without the title and the minimal block of text accompanying the print, nothing would designate the building as anything more than an anonymous manufacturing plant. Aside from the two indoor darkroom shots, this anonymity pervades Burley’s exhibit.

The absence of a tangible human presence in the exhibit (save for one long-distance shot of an unnamed individual standing in front of the gutted Kodak-Pathé plant) compounds the unaffected nature of Burley’s photographs. In The Disappearance of Darkness, the world of analog film, which demands a more tactile relationship with its subjects than digital photography, is inversely represented as a largely inhuman universe.

The emotional sentiment missing from The Disappearance of Darkness is partially the result of Burley’s inability to convey what, exactly, is being sacrificed by the passing of the analog medium. In addition to obscuring his subject matter, Burley’s photographs fail to deliver on an artistic level. His minimalist approach (there are no fancy angles, filters, or effects here) is so stripped of any aesthetic compunctions that the end result is uncompromisingly bland. The photographs, which have a point-and-shoot feel, belie the experimental potential and creative merit of analog photography.

In an online dedication to the project, Burley lovingly describes the process by which “blocks of silver were dissolved in nitric acid, mixed with the tissue of animals, and coated onto film and paper so the world could make pictures.” While Burley is clearly compelled by the production of analog film, this fascination does not translate to his photographic work, which barely hints at the complex procedure.

But where The Disappearance of Darkness flounders, Photographic Proof pulls through. By filtering the Kodak-Pathé factory’s destruction through an anthropomorphic lens, the mural subtly communicates the loss associated with the decline of analog film, all the while acting as a tribute to the beauty and versatility of the medium. Photographic Proof confronts the viewer with a clear sense of what is at stake as analog film continues to slide into oblivion.

Photographic Proof runs through October 19 on the façade of the CCA (1920, Baile). The museum itself is open from Wednesday to Sunday 11-6 p.m., 11-9 p.m. on Thursday.

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