Photographs Documenting the Demise of Camera Film Companies

Since 2005, photographer and photography lecturer Robert Burley has been documenting the demise of film photography through film photographs. He has traveled around the world with his 4×5 field camera in tow, capturing the demolition of buildings, the equipment that once powered a giant industry, and the desolation of factories that were once teeming with workers.

The photograph above shows a crowd watching the implosions of buildings 65 and 69 at Kodak Park in Rochester, New York on October 6, 2007.

On a gray December morning in 2007, crowds gathered to watch the death of photography in its birthplace. Photography refused to go quietly. After the demolition team had set off the 950 kilograms of explosives placed at the base of the building, only a portion of the structure came down. An embarrassed group of Kodak executives were forced to schedule a second attempt in February of 2008, which successfully ended the company’s presence in Niépce’s city.

After the Failed Implosion of the Kodak-Pathe Plant, Building GL, Chalon-Sur-Saone, France, December, 10, 2007

End of Employee Meeting, West Parking Lot, Last Day of Manufacturing Operations, Kodak Canada, Toronto, June 29, 2005

To be in attendance at [the demolition of Buildings 65 and 69] was to experience something thrilling and disheartening at once. The thrill came from the deafening explosions and the unreal collapse, only taking seconds, of an enormous and cavernous building. This was invariably followed by an eerie silence; spectators, many of whom were former employees and had spent the better part of their lives working in these buildings, quietly got into their cars and went home. In each instance, I believe, I was one of the few photographers recording the event on film. When I looked into the crowds in front of my view camera, I saw an array of digital devices—cell phones, camcorders, and cameras—capturing a final “Kodak moment.”

Implosion of Buildings 65 and 69, Kodak Park, Rochester, New York, 2007

Chemical Mix Room, Building 13, Kodak Canada, Toronto, 2006

Although some photographic films and papers could be handled in subdued (“safe”) light, most films were manufactured, cut, and packaged in absolute darkness. For this reason, many of the buildings were filled with darkened, black-painted rooms, often thousands of square feet in size, to meet the needs of large-scale production. The building interiors were divided into a complex series of hallways and entrance and exit passages to accommodate the traffic of workers who had developed an equally complex system for working in, and finding their way through these dark areas without incident. While the Kodak Company had a long history of employing blind workers who were at ease in the pitch dark, most others whistled or called “Watch out !” to their peers as they made their way to their workstations.

Darkroom, Building 3, Kodak Canada, Toronto, 2005

Emulsion Room, Building 13, Kodak Canada, Toronto, 2005

Darkroom, Building 10, Kodak Canada, Toronto, 2006

Employee Darkroom Area, Building 9, Kodak Canada, Toronto, 2009

The Waltham facility was closed in 2008 when Polaroid, after its second bankruptcy in ten years, announced that it would discontinue the production of all its instant films. Once having employed more than 15,000 people in Massachusetts, the Polaroid Corporation was reduced to a workforce of 1,500 by 2010, offering a variety of digital products, including camcorders, DVD players, and LCD screens. In 2011, it announced the production of a digital version of its instant camera.

Interior of Building W3, Polaroid, Waltham, Massachusetts, 2009

Detail of Machine Used to Create 8×10 Polaroid FIlm, Polaroid, Enschede, The Netherlands, 2010

Employee Identification Board, Polaroid, Enschede, The Netherlands, 2010

Interior of building W1, Polaroid, Waltham, Massachusetts, 2009.

Bags of Photographic Emulsion, Ilford, Mobberley, United Kingdom, 2010

Coffins of film, film-finishing building, Ilford, Mobberley, United Kingdom, 2010.

Film, Ilford, Mobberley, United Kingdom, 2010.

The economy of scale required in the manufacture of photographic film only becomes evident when confronted by the spaces in which the product is made or stored. The small rolls that photographers use (or used) in their cameras start out as enormous master rolls manufactured to high standards in a very few specialized facilities around the world. These rolls are some 54 inches wide by as much as 2 miles long. A typical master roll will produce approximately 50,000 rolls of 35mm film, or over forty hours of 35mm motion picture film. This Agfa warehouse contains an estimated 1, 500 master rolls of film — enough to make 73, 500,000 rolls of 24-exposure 35mm film.

Film warehouse, AGFA-Gevaert, Mortsel, Belgium [#1], 2007.

This month, Burley published 71 of large-format photographs as a hardcover book titled “The Disappearance of Darkness: Photography at the End of the Analog Era“:

You can read more about this project over on its official website.

The Disappearance of Darkness (via CNN)

Update: Pete Brook over at Wired’s Raw File also has a great profile on this project.

Image credits: Photographs by Robert Burley and used with permission

  • Cezar Banaszczyk

    why dont agfa sell that film on to companies who can make them into a usable 35mm rolls :/

  • ThePope2012

    i guess they are happy in Rochester that the heavy environment polluter is finally gone.

  • ceebee

    Digital will kill itself

  • sierrarobba

    LOL! You so stupid.

    ILford is running and they are fine.

    Kodak sell entire film line and potential buyers out there.

    Impossible project re-run polaroid film and recently they start 8×10 machine pictured above!

  • Mansgame

    Let it burn! Film is dead.

  • Phycton

    It is exactly what they are doing with some of the Rollei films… And the agfa APX100 is still available even if the last master roll was produced in 2005 !

  • Michael Zhang

    Thanks for sharing the link, Pete. I’ve updated the post with a link to your piece as well.

    We found out about Burley’s project through the CNN link we via-ed. We couldn’t publish this until today because we were waiting for Burley to get back to us about image usage permissions (which he finally did this morning).

  • autumnbringer

    Seriously, I mean who takes digital photos anymore?
    Or even uses computers?

  • David Rychart

    Film has its place and always will, at least until digital can replicate it. Throwing on a “Portra” film curve in photoshop is not the same.

  • PeteBrook

    Thanks for the update to the piece Michael. Robert really talks sense on this issue. The book is beautifully made too with insightful essays.

  • Tyler Webb

    Currently at Ryerson University studying photography where he is my prof. Great guy. Very extensive and well written book. It’s also very refreshing to have someone interested in the fate of film photography while still fully embracing digital.

  • ceebee

    Electronic waste in landfill – a toxic time bomb

  • ceebee

    So you believe that plastic manufactured in China, assembled in Taiwan and sold in the USA is more eco-friendly? And you think the tons of toxic chemicals used in the semiconductor manufacturing process don’t count? Listen, my overseas friend, we all look for easy answers to complex problems. Of course, not looking into digital pollution fits your viewpoint better.

  • Manuel

    Those rolls are not masterrolls for photographic film, but for industrial use. Agfa produced its photographic film in Germany, not Mortsel.

  • tiredofit123

    It is a set of powerful images–much of the techniques and knowledge that went into film making will be lost. A lot of hobbyists and tinkers would love to have a roll of film for their old Kodak folder but not pay the exorbitant prices small scale production would demand. A roll of ISO 100 B&W master film, cut to specifications as needed, would serve a lot of people, Feeling blue…….

  • sayithere

    well, speaking about pollutions, not only digital sensors and films (camera side) but lenses manufacturing is very big polluters. can you imagine the waste of the coating chemicals?

  • Matthew Wagg

    Open your eyes, film is very much alive. Maybe not as many types of film as was previously available but it is still very much there.

  • Matthew Wagg

    You can still buy film, you’re on the internet. Just do a search and you’ll see.

  • Matthew Wagg

    Why don’t petapixel do a piece on how film isn’t dying instead of following the herd and saying it is?

  • DafOwen

    Ilford imaging went bankrupt in 2004-2005 and various parts of the company were split up. Part of that company (Harman Technology – UK) was then branded as Ilford Photo and had a management buyout late 2005.

  • Mark Kalan

    While working on a film about metals in the early 80s we visited Kodak in Rochester and I was in the room where the silver iodide crystals were made. When I mentioned to the cinematographer that EVERY roll of fill he ever shot was born in that room his eyes widened. Somewhere I have a photo of that room with the larger stainless steel vat of crystals.

  • Jim

    Wow. I worked in Building 65 at Kodak from 2002-2004 until I left NY. I haven’t been back in that part of town apparently in over 5 years, because I think I would have noticed that big a gap in the skyline….

    I knew they’d demolished some buildings at KP, but not those buildings….sad, really.

  • tiredofit123

    Wow…..I wonder where that pack of film I just shot this afternoon in an Auto Graflex came from? And what’s this Internet of which you speak? Now try and find a roll of Kodak 116 or 828 that isn’t years out of date.

  • BetterPhotography

    I grew up shooting film. And, while I love the ease and convenience
    of digital photography and have to admit that I only shoot
    digital these days, I still find these images poignant and sad.