Daily Picture Show

A Photographer's Unlikely Passion For Trays

John Cyr has expertise in an esoteric subject: trays. But don't bother him with any old lunch tray or mirrored trinket tray. His interest, more esoterically, is in photographers' developing trays. I stumbled across his work on Wired and just had to know myself what inspired the unlikely photo series. Turns out Cyr's affinity stems from his vocation: He is a master printer and has produced silver gelatin prints for renowned photographers like James Nachtwey and Mark Seliger. He responded to some questions via email.

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Picture Show: What on Earth inspired this project?

John Cyr: At first, I was interested in my tray because of the color and texture found on its absorbent, plastic surface. It started out as an exercise ... but I came to realize that this project could be much more than a color field, textural abstraction. ... The developer tray can now be seen as a unique object with its own history that is shown through its various stains, coloring and scratches. I then began to wonder about the visual stories that could be told if I was able to get access to other photographer's developer trays. ... I have been hunting down photographers and trays for the past six months and I amassed a collection 35 photographers' trays so far.

John Cyr's personal photography tray

John Cyr's personal developing tray John Cyr hide caption

itoggle caption John Cyr

What does a tray say about its owner?

A photographer's developer tray looks the ways that it does because of how the photographer has handled it over the years, how often it has been cleaned, whether the bottom has been scratched with tongs, how many years it has been used, what type of developer they use, and so on. I see each tray as somewhat of a unique photographic fingerprint of what is often a lifetime of darkroom work. That is why no two trays will ever be the same.

Are there any trays that you hold particularly dear?

Honestly, I hold them all dear. Each developer tray has played a part in the production of historical and noteworthy photographs and for that reason they are all uniquely important. I have also had the pleasure of handling all of these historical objects myself so I feel a connection to them in that sense as well. With that said, I find some of the trays that I have photographed are truly visually striking, in particular those of Neil Selkirk, Emmet Gowin, Barbara Mensch, Gary Schneider, Sylvia Plachy and Vera Lutter. Lutter's tray is a trough that is 8 inches deep, 8 inches wide, and 5 feet long. It is used on location inside of her camera obscuras where she produces mural-sized negative prints.

How much of the art is in the camera, and how much is in the printing?

A printer's job is to enhance a photograph so that it will look the best that it possibly can, whether it is exactly what the photographer envisioned when the image was taken or a dramatic rendering that came from the mind of the printer. With that said, a printer can only do so much. The most important aspect of a photography is in the image, without a doubt. Exhibition prints should always be a full collaboration between the photographer and a printer.

Do you have a favorite photo that has been printed in one of these trays — or a favorite that you have printed?

My true personal connection is with Aaron Siskind's developer tray. His textural abstractions have always been a big influence of mine, in this project as well as others. ... However, there is no real way of knowing. The ambiguity about what has been processed in each tray is another aspect that interests me about this project. Viewing each tray, one will never truly know what has been processed there. We can imagine and hope, but we will never be able to find an answer just from looking.

See more on John Cyr's website.

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