Seductive obsolescence

Many photographers have spoken and written about the darkroom as a near-mystical space, in which by magical chemistry something is produced from nothing in cheap plastic trays. But professional darkrooms are now disappearing fast. When Richard Nicholson, whose work forms part of Analog, a show at London’s Riflemaker Gallery, started photographing professional darkrooms a few years ago, he found that there were more than 200 in London. Now there are fewer than a dozen.

His pictures are very skilful. Photographing darkrooms offers a hostage to fortune: apart from anything else, they have no natural light, they are cramped and full of junk – not obviously appealing spaces. But they used to be the particular spaces of photography, so as the digital tide swept through the industry it was tempting to record them before they vanished forever.

There is the usual clutter of workspaces occupied for hours on end, with lots of quirky objects and radios (darkrooms were solitary places). There are piles of the reinforced print boxes in which photographic papers were sold. At the centre of each view is the enlarger, a machine specific to the industry. The names are beginning to fade: Durst 504, DeVere CLS 1840, Beseler ... There will be a revival in darkrooms, servicing a museum art form. They won’t drive the industry as they used to, and it was a good idea to look hard at them before they died.

The digital revolution worries people, and it is not only darkrooms that are disappearing. White Cube recently showed Gregory Crewdson’s work on the ghost town that is Cinecittà, the great film studio in Rome, and now Edward Burtynsky is turning his mind in the same general direction.

At Flowers Central, in London’s Cork Street, there is a radical departure for Burtynsky, albeit of a retrograde kind. Pentimento (which means the action of a draughtsman revisiting his own work) is a series of large black and white reprints from the Type 55 Polaroids that Burtynsky made originally to check lighting and composition when he was producing his sequence on the Chittagong shipbreakers in Bangladesh. Type 55 produced both a print and a very fine-grained negative, and the new series takes delight in every blemish and crease from the original, including gashes of missing emulsion, stress marks and other scars of the passage of time, all seen in that enduringly suggestive and recognisable “frame” of the detritus of the Polaroid chemistry around the image.

Polaroid instant film has itself all but disappeared, in spite of a few pockets of resistance. Now, you can buy apps that recreate the look of Polaroid on your iPhone. To use this vanishing technique to show the almost medieval work done by the shipbreakers, who with little in the way of heavy cutting or lifting equipment, and no protective gear, dismantle huge ships run ashore for the purpose, is a deliberate nod from one obsolete industry to another.

The prints are deeply seductive. Unlike Burtynsky’s “finished” colour pictures of the shipbreakers, these revisited ones invite direct comparison with Sebastião Salgado’s pictures of the same subject. Each asks how it can be that such industrial practices can be allowed to survive, where human power is often the only power available, and the price of a man is less than the price of a safety line. And each at the same time beautifies these scenes or even romanticises them. Burtynsky finds a stinking pool of oil sludge and makes it glisten and gleam like lovely skin.

These pictures also hark back to far older imagery. One of them, “Shipbreaking Field #7 Proof”, looks like nothing so much as the hastily built go-downs that Roger Fenton found in the 1850s at Balaclava Harbour in the Crimea.

Upstairs, Burtynsky is showing an only partially satisfactory series of aerial views of last year’s disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, where vast quantities of the same sludge that he found in Chittagong poured into an ecosystem with too few tides to process them. The weakness is that these are aerial views, blown up large, and even Burtynsky doesn’t always have all the control he needs from the unstable platform of a small plane.

In a show of only a few images, too many could be agency pictures: here’s the surface of the sea, visibly contaminated by mighty, gleaming turds of oil; here are some ships at their work. Still, Burtynsky has managed in a couple of prints, which he liked enough to print even larger, to produce a sea surface as it has rarely been photographed before. This sea is a grey skin, stained by the lighter types of oil a bit like petrol residue in a puddle. But heavier crude is there, too, in spatterings of golden acne, obviously wrong and harmful. They look like cancer cells in a scan.

One picture carries deceptive layers of narrative beneath the sea’s apparently calm surface. The Discoverer Enterprise is about the most advanced drilling ship in the world: here, instead of drilling for oil, it is drilling the relief well that should never have been necessary in the first place. This is epic storytelling in the Frankenstein mould, as monstrous installations built by man run out of man’s control.

The connections between these two marine series of Burtynsky’s are manifold and subtle. So are our relations with the oceans. Burtynsky has been working for some time on a history of our dependence on oil, and these pictures take their caustic place in that.

‘Last One Out, Please Turn On The Light’, by Richard Nicholson, Riflemaker, London until March 5.

‘Gulf Oil Spill’ and ‘Pentimento’ by Edward Burtynsky, Flowers, London until February 5.

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