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Eastman House exhibits document fading of film and tools of the photography trade

ROCHESTER – Eastman Kodak, the company synonymous with capturing and preserving the past on film, is now trying to become a technology company focused on imaging for business.

But while still holding on to its past, Kodak continues to make still film for consumers and professionals. It is still made in Rochester, in the former Kodak Park, now the Eastman Business Park, and is sold by an independent spin-off called Kodak Alaris. And at you can now find the “Kodak Moment of the Day,” a compendium of pictures submitted from folks the world over, an operation run by Kodak Alaris, and hosted on the website.

It wasn’t that long ago that we were all popping rolls out of a camera and taking them to the drug store to be developed. While this 20th century process lives on, the scale is greatly reduced.

Which brings us to “The Disappearance of Darkness,” an exhibit in Rochester’s George Eastman House, the International Museum of Photography and Film, by acclaimed photographer and Ryerson University professor, Robert Burley. Burley realized the world was changing with the announcement that Kodak Canada, where both cameras and film were made, would be closing.

“Is anybody going to photograph that?” he wondered.

He decided he would. With the digital age upon us, Burley’s odyssey began, chronicling in pictures the decommissioning of Kodak Canada, parts of Rochester’s Kodak Park, a Kodak plant in France, Agfa-Gevaert in Belgium, Ilford operations in England, and Polaroid closures in Enschede, Netherlands, and Waltham, Mass.

“There were a lot of final moments,” he said to me of shooting Kodak plants imploding in Canada, the United States and France, relaying the sadness he felt as companies that were part of his personal history as a photographer, either faded away completely or emerged from bankruptcy, not quite what they once were. The exhibit’s most ironic moment occurs in Rochester, as Burley’s camera captures dozens of photographers, digital cameras at the ready, waiting to photograph a Kodak Park implosion, many not likely realizing the proliferation of digital devices they held in their hands would bring them to witness, at the push of a button, almost as easily employed as those on their now ubiquitous cameras, the end of an industry.

“People who made film really had a feel for it,” Burley told an opening-day assembly, while fondling a roll of Kodak Tri-X in his hands.

Burley and camera came to Rochester to shoot the implosions of Kodak Park’s buildings 65 and 69. And “I had to go,” he said me upon hearing news that a Kodak plant in Chalon-Sur-Saone, France, would also be imploded. Those pictures also are on display.

But it wasn’t just buildings being blown up, the gone-in-30-seconds phenomenon he frequently experienced, “spectacular and sad at the same time,” he said. There also are the empty offices: an employee identification board at Polaroid’s Enschede, Netherlands, facility, shot in 2010; a Kodak image center and coating plant, buildings 7 and 13 at Kodak Canada, where only building 9 still stands. There are film coffins, film piles and bags of photographic emulsion from Ilford’s Mobberry, England, site. And Polaroid prints found by Burley himself at a factory in Waltham, Mass., closed in 2009, probably taken by company personnel.

Today the George Eastman House, as it has since its 1947 founding, documents the history of imaging, and with “Innovation in the Imaging Capital,” gives us many highlights, and solidifies Rochester’s role.

In 1888 Kodak introduced its first camera, the snapshot model. The one on display, still operable, is loaded with Eastman American Film, the only known example. The Brownie camera also is displayed, the first in a line that would eclipse 200 adaptations, until production on the Brownie Fiesta R4 ceased in March 1970. There’s also a 1938 Super Kodak Six-20, the first automatic exposure camera, and a 1963 Instamatic, a model that lasted into the mid-1990’s, reputed to be the best-selling camera ever.

Moving slightly ahead in time, and displayed publicly at the Eastman House for the first time, the forerunner to our current capture, save, and share every moment, everywhere culture, is 1975’s digital camera, the first ever. Steven J. Sasson, an electrical engineer hired by Kodak in 1973, and the digital camera’s inventor, was on hand at the opening of the exhibit.

While Kodak developed digital technology, it partnered with Canon, Nikon, and for 1994’s NC 2000, with the Associated Press. Into a Nikon F3 body, Kodak implanted its innovations, resulting in a camera that was popular with professional photographers, with some of the advanced versions valued at $25,000. Earlier on, in a 1991 New York City news conference, Kodak rolled out the DCS, the first color digital single lens reflex camera for amateurs.

There are a lot of firsts on display. Among them are moon images taken by a lunar orbiter, and a view of the earth from near the moon, taken by Lunar Orbiter I on Aug. 23, 1966. There’s a mural image of crater Copernicus, taken by Lunar Orbiter II on Nov. 23, 1966. And “Camera Goes Aboard,” depicts a World War I image, a ground crew hands off a reconnaissance camera to a plane’s pilots.

For the camera curious, both “The Disappearance of Darkness” and “Innovation in the Imaging Capital” offer a fascinating glimpse into the world behind the lens.

If you go

Both exhibits run through Jan. 4.

The George Eastman House (900 East Ave., Rochester, NY 14607; (585) 271-3361;, is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. Admission is adults $14, seniors $12, students with identification $5, children 12 and under free.

House tours run from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Gallery tours are at 1 p.m.