Articles

Darkroom Developer Trays as Portraits of the Artists

by Allison Meier on March 20, 2014

John Cyr, "Ansel Adam's Developer Tray" (all images courtesy powerHouse Books)

John Cyr, “Ansel Adam’s Developer Tray” (all images courtesy powerHouse Books)

Disposable and deteriorated, the developer trays used by photographers are usually discarded. Brooklyn-based photographer and printer John Cyr has discovered the beauty in these battered trays, where so many images first appeared.

"Developer Trays" by John Cyr (click to view larger)

“Developer Trays” by John Cyr (click to view larger)

This week was the launch of Developer Trays, a new book from powerHouse Books that brings together Cyr’s photographs of trays from 80 artists including Ansel Adams, Aaron Siskind, Lillian Bassman, Joel-Peter Witkin, Sally Mann, Elliott Erwitt, and even Cyr himself. Photographs from the book are also on display at the PowerHouse Arena in Dumbo. Cyr has long worked as a darkroom printer and although those very spaces of chemistry and process are fading he saw a value in examining this artifact. As he explains:

“The tray’s appearance becomes a direct reflection of its treatment; the years of usage, its maintenance, type of developer used, and level of print agitation. The photographer’s print processing habits dictate every accumulated tong mark, silver deposit, and chemical stain.”

It’s not dissimilar from looking at the painter’s palettes displayed at the Salmagundi Club; you can interpret the traces of each artist like a fingerprint of their work. You can see the worn streaks on the Sylvia Plachy’s tray where photograph after richly detailed photograph was swished back and forth, and Bruce Davidson’s is sharply pristine save for the small scratches on the metal. Others show the duration of chemicals, the sedimented wash from Neil Selkirk’s developed portraits not indifferent from the early developer tray photographed from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Like any well-loved studio tool, the developer tray builds up its own byproduct portrait of an artist.

John Cyr, "Aaron Siskind's Developer Tray"

John Cyr, “Aaron Siskind’s Developer Tray”

John Cyr, "Elliott Erwitt's Developer Tray"

John Cyr, “Elliott Erwitt’s Developer Tray”

John Cyr, "George Eastman House Developer Tray"

John Cyr, “George Eastman House Developer Tray”

John Cyr, "Lillian Bassman's Developer Tray"

John Cyr, “Lillian Bassman’s Developer Tray”

John Cyr, "Neil Selkirk's Developer Tray"

John Cyr, “Neil Selkirk’s Developer Tray”

John Cyr, "Developer Tray from the Photo History Collection of Smithsonian's National Museum of American History"

John Cyr, “Developer Tray from the Photo History Collection of Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History”

John Cyr, "Sylvia Plachy's Developer Tray"

John Cyr, “Sylvia Plachy’s Developer Tray”

John Cyr, "Bruce Davidson's Developer Tray"

John Cyr, “Bruce Davidson’s Developer Tray”

Developer Trays by John Cyr is available from powerHouse Books. Photographs by Cyr are on view at PowerHouse Arena (37 Main Street, Dumbo, Brooklyn) through April 3.  

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  • thorn

    great work Cyr! bravo + encore!!
    thx H. for your, in general, cool site!

  • melanie

    Collectively, these photographs not only function as a type of portrait of the individual photographers, but of photography itself. A wonderful series, and very well executed.

  • Chris Egan

    I can not wait to build my own darkroom! and the silver print is far from dead, it is becoming the one true piece of “art” in a physical manifestation for photography.

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