Robert Burley The Last Day of Work
Known for his inspiring colour vistas of urban architecture and landscape, Canadian photographer Robert Burley revisits the demise of analogue photography, as well as its recent resurgence. Presented on the façade of the Mount Dennis Library and adjacent billboards, this project speaks to the significant role and history of the Eastman Kodak Company in this neighbourhood, as well as the larger global photographic industry.
In the wake of the abrupt and rapid breakdown of a century-old industry and the emergence of new, digital technologies, Burley looks at the end of celluloid, film-manufacturing facilities, and industrial darkrooms with nostalgia while remaining open to experimentation. As one of Canada’s leading artists working in photography, and as both an observer and a participant in this transition, he favours the use of innovative photographic materials, often displaying his elegiac photographs in unexpected—and sometimes spectacular—outdoor spaces.
In this installation, the artist presents large-scale murals exposing the final days of the Eastman Kodak Company in Toronto, and more specifically Kodak Heights, the sprawling manufacturing complex built in the city’s Mount Dennis neighbourhood in 1916. At the end of the nineteenth century, the company became a dominant force in the photography market by simplifying technological processes. At its peak, Kodak Heights was the area’s largest employer with over 3,000 workers; its industrial complex was comprised of 18 buildings and occupied 25 acres of land. Operating seven days a week, the company manufactured cameras, film rolls, photographic paper, and chemical equipment. At the start of the new millennium, Kodak faced insurmountable economic challenges resulting from the invention of digital photography. Following the plummeting demand for film—its most profitable product—the company made the decision to close its Mount Dennis facilities in 2004. Over the next two years, all of the employees were laid off, the manufacturing operations were decommissioned, and the complex was demolished.
Burley’s series revisits the downfall of the industrial historic site that defined the Mount Dennis community in the 20th century, paying homage to the successive generations of Kodak workers while acknowledging the neighbourhood’s urban renewal. For example, Building No. 9, dedicated at the time to employee leisure activities and housing the cafeteria and an auditorium, was saved from demolition by the Toronto Preservation Board and has since been incorporated into a new subway station scheduled to open in the near future. The photographs emphasize the unique character of the buildings, designed for manufacturing photographic products in complete darkness. An aerial view presents Kodak employees leaving the complex after a group photograph was taken on the final day of operations: June 29, 2005. Burley also focuses on the human traces left behind, including an employee’s abandoned cardigan in one of the administrative offices. Additionally, the series comprises documents drawn from the Kodak Canada Corporate Archive, held in Toronto Metropolitan University’s Archives and Special Collections, including a letter sent out to the company’s employees in 2004 announcing the closure of the complex, and four photographs depicting workers processing prints and developing film in a warehouse in the late 1960s.
Through his monumental installations, Burley offers striking allegories about the disappearance of the traditional photographic industry, simultaneously considering a millennial-driven interest in film-based photography and the role of analogue media in contemporary visual culture. His work strikes a subtle balance between the nostalgic commemoration of the demise of now obsolete materials and the celebration of cutting‐edge photographic technology.
Exhibition essay by Gaëlle Morel
In conjunction with this outdoor installation, Burley will exhibit work from his monograph The Disappearance of Darkness: Photography at the end of the analog era (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012) at Stephen Bulger Gallery from May 2 through May 27. Two series of prints will be exhibited, concentrating on the former Kodak Heights office and manufacturing complex.
Presented by CONTACT in partnership with Mount Dennis BIA and the Toronto Public Library. Supported by PATTISON Outdoor Advertising
Robert Burley has spent his career as an artist working in photo-based media exploring the relationship between nature and the city, architecture, and the urban landscape. His multi-year projects are realized in numerous forms including public installations, exhibitions, and books. In 2014, he worked with The Image Centre (IMC) to produce the international traveling show The Disappearance of Darkness, with an accompanying monograph published by Princeton Architectural Press. Works from this series were also featured as public installations at MOCCA, Toronto (2008) and the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal (2009). More recently Burley has completed two books on the presence of nature in the city: Enduring Wilderness (ECW Press 2017) and Accidental Wilderness (UTPress 2020). He lives and works in Toronto and is represented by the Stephen Bulger Gallery.