Back to the Future -
Photography in the 21st Century, February 21, 2007

Robert Burley

A fan of large format materials and processes, Robert Burley has been a practising photographer for 30 years. Until 2000, he was part of the Toronto architecture photography firm, designARCHIVE. He began teaching photography at Ryerson's School of Image Arts in the late 1990s (a 1970s Ryerson student, he used the Kerr Hall  darkroom). Today, he straddles the film/digital divide capturing images on film - fast disappearing from the market - and printing large prints using inkjet technology. Visit his web site at

Robert Burley
L to R: Photos by Burley - designARCHIVE - Kerr Hall Darkroom - and an exhibition using large inkjet prints

Ryerson. The university dates back to 1948 when it was founded as the Ryerson Institute of Technology. It has the oldest and largest photography education program in Canada.  It's hard to ignore Ryerson University these days with the Toronto International Film Festival using its new on campus theatre, new Ryerson buildings popping up downtown, a new post graduate program in photography, and imaging companies like Adobe holding meetings at its facilities. 

The digital revolution in photography is forcing Ryerson to look to the rapid changes in the future while reaching back to traditional processes and history. For example, its ganged dark room in Kerr Hall was a feature of student life into the 1990s when processes began a rapid change. Ansel Adams books (Camera, Negative, Print) used years ago remain excellent text books even today - an Adams print used in the 1970s Ryerson program to encapsulate the photographic process is still used today. And the photography programs use commercial materials from Kodak.

Digital Tsunami. The impact of digital imagery is being felt throughout the photographic industry at a rapidly accelerating pace.  Until digital, all main stream photography was silver based from the earliest daguerreotype and calotype on through the wet-plate and dry-plate innovations to modern film be it colour or black and white. For nearly  60 years photography at Ryerson was basically the same silver-based processes with small refinements over time. The seeds of change began as far back as 1969 when Bell Labs scientists Smith and Boyle invented the Charge-Coupled Device (CCD) to capture an image for the ill-fated AT&T videophone. Today the CCD is used in the majority of digital cameras, capturing billions of images. 

Burley noted a NY Times article from early 2002 announcing the first 3 megapixel CCD which gave image quality "exceeding 35mm film". Fast Forwarding two years to 2004 sees a growing impact on the traditional industry leaders: Agfa is gone, Polaroid is gone, Century old llford is on the ropes and Kodak stops production of Black and White photo paper - a product it has manufactured since 1889. 

A year later in 2005 Kodak sees digital sales surpass film, Nikon drops production of film cameras, Minolta/Konica drop cameras entirely with their SLR line sold to Sony to ease its incursion into the new hot-product: the Digital SLR. And sadly, Eastman Kodak closes its century old Kodak Canada facility in Toronto. In March of 2006 a Photoshop News article predicts the end of film photography with 90% of all images created with a digital camera by 2009.

CCD invented
Kodak Canada 1999

Kodak Canada. Burley took on the challenge of recording the closure of the Kodak Canada campus. Kodak Canada (originally called the Canadian Kodak Company) was founded in 1899. In its day it manufactured film, paper, and cameras as well as processing slide and movie film including the technically complex Kodachrome processing. For some fifty years it produced almost all Kodak products sold in Canada, later producing selected products for world-wide sales. Burley showed one print taken in 1999 which brought back memories for many of us. The PHSC had close ties with Kodak Canada through now deceased members like Gerry Ham, Jack Addison, and Larry Boccioletti. As part of the Kodak Canada centenary celebration, the company hosted a PHSC evening celebrating our 25th anniversary. 

In March of 2004 during a PHSC presentation on the state of digital products in Kodak Canada, Peter Little expressed hope that the Canadian operation would survive as the manufacturer of Kodak Inkjet papers, based on the plant's unsurpassed track record for quality and efficiency. A year later on June 30, 2005, the plant closed for good with the loss of hundreds of jobs and today Kodak Canada is mainly a small sales organization housed on one floor of a building near Pearson Airport. Kodak in Rochester is hurting too. To date over 50 buildings have been demolished at Rochester's famous Kodak Park. 

Burley calls his next project "The Disappearance of Darkness". He wants to photograph other rapidly disappearing photographic facilities in North America. With most photographs today made with ink processes, he has a concern about what 20th century processes we will be able to see and create in the future. Unlike the 19th century processes which can be duplicated today by skilled individuals like photographer Mike Robinson, the 20th century processes rely on materials made in huge, costly factory operations.

For example, building #13 at Kodak Canada which housed its coating facility, was nine stories of equipment dedicated to making photographic paper and film. All operations took place in the dark using infra-red cameras to monitor the process and track any defects. Designed to make 40 huge rolls of material a day, once sales fell it was no longer viable. An aerial overview of the Kodak Canada campus, taken from a 1999 brochure, shows the location of the coating building and parking lots that appear in Burley's photographs. 

June 2005
June 2006
Building #13
Work flow
Inside the now closed Kodak Canada coating plant - a nine story factory once devoted to
making the best photographic paper known - history photographed by Robert Burley

Post Graduate Programs. A new era began recently at Ryerson when it announced a Master of Arts in Photographic Preservation and Collections Management in collaboration with George Eastman House in Rochester NY. The program addresses the care and management of both object-based and digital collections. Students spend a year at George Eastman House in Rochester with its amazing collections. With its aggressive expansion of graduate programs and studies, image and book acquisitions, and the increasing interest in historical processes, Ryerson is beginning to be recognized as an international force in photography. 

Many institutions are providing online searchable versions of their holdings. For example the American Library of Congress recently added the one millionth searchable digital image to its site. Burley noted the oft mentioned concern about long term preservation of digital images. Digital media tends to have an average working life of five years and an uncertain "storage" life. The necessary software and hardware to view outmoded media exacerbates the problem. With the move to digital, traditional photographs are becoming really valuable. Recently A Steichen gum-bichromate print sold for $2.3m US while a print by another recognized photographer sold for $1.4m US (it was sold eight years earlier for $400,000 US).

Ryerson on-line
Students at GEH
Virtual - real exhibitions

Collections.  Ryerson has received a number of high profile photographic collections. The book and paper collections are available to the students and are or will be searchable online via the Ryerson web-site. 

The Black Star image collection is the most prestigious of the group. It was an anonymous donation complete with seven million dollars to build a suitable storage and managing facility. Black Star is a New York City based firm established in the 1930s by German editors who fled persecution at home. The collection consists of nearly 300,000 photographs of historic events from 1918 through 1980. It arrived in archival storage boxes carefully organized and numbered, complete with a database. 

The Graver book and Kodak ephemera collection provides a wealth of technically oriented books on photography. The collection was purchased from PHSC member Nick Graver and his wife who live in Rochester and have been deeply involved with that city's photographic industry and Photographic Historical Society. 

The Mitchell book collection was acquired from Michael Mitchell. The books address the art aspect of photography, neatly complementing the Graver books. The collection includes a number of first edition photographic books of increasing value. 

The Spira book collection is a third and surprising complement to the university's holdings.  Fred Spira of New York City founded Spiratone, a supplier of inexpensive photographic goods. Beginning in the 1960s, he amassed a large collection of cameras, images, books and ephemera which was described in a 2001 book published by Aperture "The History of Photography as seen through the Spira Collection". The collection was sold in 2006 with 200 lots going under the hammer at the WestLicht Photographica Auction of Vienna, Austria. The library associated with the collection went to Ryerson. 

The Kodak Canada Archive donated to the university in 2005, was a major coup for Ryerson. The contents are reasonably organized but there is still much identifying and inventorying to do. For example, while unpacking a box, an 1885 patent application for the Eastman-Walker roll film holder was discovered. The document, hand-drawn in ink on vellum, is signed by Eastman and Walker. 

The archive contains copies of Kodakery, a publication originally produced for distribution to amateur photographers, and later as an in-house publication; corporate papers, business ledgers, journals, and technical recipes and guides such as the 1940s loose leaf recipe book detailing the various steps used to produce products such as Velox printing paper. 

Included in the acquisition is the camera collection that was put in place for Kodak Canada's centenary in 1999. The museum at Kodak Canada was set up by Bonnie Chapman with the assistance of the late Larry Boccioletti, past president of the PHSC to identify and tag the cameras. Burley noted Ryerson faces the task of identifying the cameras once again since the cameras and tags were separated somewhere along the way to Ryerson. He asked the PHSC for help in this activity. 

Burley closed the evening's talk by pointing out Kodak's success in amateur film cameras came from recognizing women as the prime family photographers, and simplifying its products making it possible for anyone to take good pictures - a strategy it is using today with its digital product line, one of the most successful in the world.

Graver and Mitchell
Graver Collection
Black Star Arrives
Mitchell Collection
Kodak Canada Archive
Kodak Canada Archive
Bonnie Chapman of Kodak Canada
with Mike Oesch and Larry Boccioletti
celebrate our 25th at Kodak in 1999
Bob Lansdale captures Robert Burley's
likeness with Wayne Gilbert on lighting
and Tiit Kodar and Harry Joy directing.

You can see more of Robert Burley's work on his web site including a slimbox gallery of some of his "Disappearance of Darkness 2006" images from the recently levelled Kodak Canada facility.

Unless other wise noted, images on this page were taken with a Sony F828 digital still camera off the projection screen and subsequently adjusted in Photoshop CS2 and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom V1. Contents and most images are ©2007 Robert Burley and may not be used without his permission. Any PHSC images may be used freely provided the source is clearly indicated. Contact PHSC at if you would like more information on the items discussed on this page.

Click on most of the small images to see a larger version in a separate window.

Bob Carter

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