Interview with Bob Burley


00:00:00 Bob Discusses Kodak, Lectures and Photographing Kodak Heights

I was teaching at Ryerson at the time, this occurred around 2004-2005. But at that time, I was also involved in coordinating the Kodak lectures which was a lecture series which allowed us to bring photographers and filmmakers and media theorists and historians here to Ryerson to speak about their work and Kodak had sponsored that for by that time about 25 years. But through that connection, I was able to kind of get a heads up on the plans to close down Kodak Heights very early on. Once I understood those plans were in place, I asked if I could photograph the buildings. It was a large facility, 18 buildings on four-and-a-half hectares of land in the northwest part of the city. It was really quite a kind of monumental manufacturing facility in Toronto that had been there for close to a century. I started that in April, May of 2005 and during that time I came to understand that they were not only closing the facility down, but they in fact, had plans to demolish it. As a result, they needed to find a home for their corporate archive that had been kept in the communications department as well as a small museum they created to celebrate their 100th anniversary. Over about a year and a half, I worked with the Image Arts librarian, Susan Patrick who was instrumental in helping to bring this collection to Ryerson. It was also a collection that triggered the beginning of special collections at the Ryerson library and Susan played a very big role in that as well.

00:02:01 Kodak and the History of Photography in Canada

I think Kodak's you know, a big part of the history of international photography. The fact that they set up a branch office in Toronto very early on in the late 19th century, was a big factor for Canadian photography of all kinds, commercial, amateur, fine art photography. It was a company that really worked very closely with photographers. That really encouraged them to use their products to try and develop new approaches to the use of those products. I would say, from a very early stage, the company had played an integral role in the history of photography in Canada.

00:02:59 Public Programming in Toronto

I think Kodak had a real passion for education and this was something that we felt in a big way at Ryerson. Kodak, as I mentioned earlier, sponsored a lecture series that was really world-renowned. It was a lecture series that was free and open to the public anyone could come and hear a who's-who of photographers. I first experienced that lecture series as a student when I was when I was here at Ryerson. After the fact, after I graduated, I realized it was such an important part of my education because I saw lectures by Robert Frank and Andre Kertesz and Eugene Smith and the Beckers and you know, the list just goes on and on. It was a remarkable, a remarkable public program.

But Kodak also had education programs for high school students. In fact, there was a woman named Leslie Sparks who is now running the education program for Hot Docs, who ran that program at Kodak for many years. It was very important in terms of getting young people really excited about photography. They not only gave money and products, but they often hosted events at the Kodak Heights building number nine which had a big gymnasium and could accommodate large groups of people to to do all kinds of lectures contests workshops and demonstrations of all kinds.

They were a big part of the photo community. They were also a very big part of the Toronto community in terms of just the philanthropy that they did in this area to support community initiatives of all kinds. It was, I mean if you go back into the history, it was George Eastman who created what is now today, the United Way in Rochester. So that legacy carried through to Kodak Canada in a big way and the company was really a big part of many Toronto nonprofits and cultural groups, all kinds of groups that benefited from their generosity.

00:05:34 Why Have the Kodak Canada Archive at Ryerson

I think the Kodak archive was really a perfect fit for Ryerson because Ryerson's the oldest and largest photography program in Canada. It's one of the largest in North America and I've always felt that this institution is where the history of photography lives in this country. We have, I think we have the largest number of photographic historians who teach here and who are involved in the Ryerson Image Centre. I've always felt that the university plays a very big role in the history of visual media, both film and photographic media. When the Kodak archive was offered to us, I thought this should really go nowhere else. It should really come to Ryerson because of the history that we have here and the history that exists within the Kodak archive are so closely aligned.

00:06:42 Bob Shares What He Finds Fascinating at the Archive

The archive as a whole is so fascinating because the nature of photographic manufacturing was really unique to the medium. Everything had to be manufactured and packaged in total darkness and when when you go through the archive, you get a real feel for this very unique quality to the Kodak Canada facility and to the products that they made and the physical quality of those products. I think that that's something that is you know, it's an element of photography that we're losing touch with as we move further into the 21st century. I think it's something that's documented so well. I mean for example, there's a great photograph of one of the lab technicians dissolving blocks of silver into nitric acid to create silver nitrate which was a key element in light sensitive photographic papers and films. That process of making films and papers, that everyone used. I mean these are products that you used to be able to buy at the corner store along with milk and bread, were kind of manufactured in a very secretive manner. When the archive came to Ryerson, I think the secrecy that had kind of veiled the manufacturing of these products, was suddenly opened up. That for me, is one of the most fascinating aspects of the collection.