Interview with John Cyr, Juror’s Pick, 2011 Daylight/CDS Photo Awards Project Prize

John Cyr
Juror’s Pick (Anthony Bannon), Daylight/CDS Photo Awards Project Prize


“Crisp, contained, conceptual, and attractively self-conscious. A charm. Couldn’t be better.”­Anthony Bannon [director, George Eastman House]

In response to the decline of darkroom developing in the digital age, John Cyr created a series of images of photographers’ developer trays “…so that the photography community will remember the specific, tangible printing tools that were an essential part of the photographic experience for a hundred years,” he says.

Here, he talks about the project with Duke documentary studies student Demi Davis:

When you told [celebrated American photographer] Emmet Gowin about your developer tray project, what was his reaction?

When I contacted Emmet in February of 2010, my project was still in its beginning stages. Some photographers have questioned what I was doing, but Emmet understood what I was out to do: photograph a tangible object that has experienced the development of his various bodies of work through the years. When I visited him, he gave me five developer trays to photograph. The developer tray that I chose to use for my project was one that had been used since the late 1960s. Because of the various developers, and how many years [the tray] had been used to produce prints, the plastic surface of the tray has a beautiful yellow tone that is highlighted with purple, blue, and magenta in the areas where the developer stained its porous surface. I also love that [Gowin] wrote “Dektol” on the tray’s side. After I mailed him a print of his developer tray, he wrote that upon seeing this image he was inspired to go back in the darkroom to make some prints, something that he hadn’t done in years.


Emmet Gowin's developer tray. Photograph by John Cyr.

After photographing Emmet Gowin’s tray, how did you know where to go next and which artists’ trays to photograph?

The whole process of contacting other photographers occurred very naturally. Initially, I used all the connections that I had to get as many e-mails, phone numbers, and addresses that I could. Nearly every visit would end with me sitting down with the photographer for a conversation where they would often name a few of their friends and colleagues that they might be able to connect me with. I would not have been able to photograph many of the sixty-five trays that I have amassed without the help and support of all of the photographers, historians, and archivists that I have worked with.

Once I had gone through all of the readily available connections, I did a lot of research that led me to families of deceased photographers, the names of the last assistants the photographers worked with, and various obscure studio locations. The deeper I got into this project, the more photographers agreed to be part of it. Once I had a respectable list of well-known photographers who had allowed me to photograph their trays, I think that the photographers I was contacting realized the vast extent of the archive that I was creating and were generally enthusiastic about being part of it.


How do you feel that the practice of photography is changing? 

I think that digital photography is a great tool that has both enhanced the work of professional photographers as well as made high quality images more accessible for amateurs. I scan my 4 x 5 negatives so that I can retouch the files in order to present each tray as consistently as possible. I then output my files as inkjet prints. One has to take advantage of all technology that is available.

I don’t find a need to compare the digital and analog processes in contemporary photography; they are simply different processes that yield different results. In my own practice as a silver gelatin printer, I find that there is still a need for the services that I provide. Many of my clients prefer traditional black-and-white prints for their exhibitions and print sales.

At this point, I can’t think of any analog photographers who haven’t done anything with digital media of some sort. With that said, those who still prefer traditional darkroom prints do so because of the materiality of a silver gelatin print. In one’s digital workflow, an extensive amount of work is performed on a digital file, which can then be printed countless times exactly the same as the first. When making a traditional print, all adjustments are made in the darkroom during the image’s exposure. This results in a unique print that will never be exactly duplicated, no matter how good your printing notes are. It is the objecthood of each silver gelatin print that keeps certain photographers interested in continuing to produce traditional darkroom prints.


Ansel Adams' developer tray. Photograph by John Cyr.

How do photographers, as well as those who aren’t familiar with what a developer tray is, respond to this series?

I have found that this project generally resonates with photographers, photography collectors, art historians, and archivists. These are people who have most likely either used or handled darkroom equipment at some point in the past and therefore have a personal relationship with the project. Many of the trays belong to well-known photographers. If someone looking at my work doesn’t know what a developer tray is, there is at least a connection that can be made to a tray that belonged to a photographer as renowned as Ansel Adams or Sally Mann. If they didn’t know what a developer tray was before viewing my work, now they do. This is an inherent motivation of my project.


Read more about John Cyr’s work. 

CDS undergraduate student Demi Davis conducted this interview as part of the “Multimedia Documentary” class in the fall of 2011.




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    One Response to “Interview with John Cyr, Juror’s Pick, 2011 Daylight/CDS Photo Awards Project Prize”

    1. Builder Levy says:

      As one of the photographers whose tray John Cyr photographed, I think his project is pretty cool.

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