Tray display: Sunset Park artist photographs famous developer trays

Tray display: Sunset Park artist photographs famous developer trays
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

More shutterbugs are making the switch to digital cameras, but one Brooklyn photographer is preserving the old ways.

Sunset Park resident John Cyr has created a book of photography that catalogues an oft-overlooked piece of studio minutiae — the developer tray. For the project, he spent three years snapping pictures of famous photographers’ trays, and now he is bringing his album out of the darkroom for a book launch at Dumbo’s PowerHouse Arena on March 18.

The trays may be low-tech and entirely disposable, but they are nonetheless integral to photo processing, Cyr explains.

“It’s where you first see the product in a positive form,” Cyr said.

To process a picture, a photographer projects the negative onto a piece of paper then submerges it in a series of chemicals that bring out the image and fix it to the page. The chemical processes are accomplished in the developer tray, and over time, it starts to tell a story.

“It contains latent information about how photographer handled it — how often it was cleaned, tong marks, fingerprints from rotating the paper,” Cyr said.

It is also one of the first things to disappear in the digital age.

“A lot of darkrooms are closing,” he said. “It’s a $30 piece of plastic or stainless steel — they get thrown out.”

Cyr’s project not only memorializes one of the more ephemeral pieces of analog photography equipment, it also allowed him to meet some of his idols and see their workspaces. He ended up cataloging more than 80 photographers’ trays, many of them close to home.

“It started off really organically. Being based in Brooklyn, if I go within a three-hour radius, that’s 70 percent of the trays I photographed,” he said.

But as the project progressed, Cyr started travelling further afield. He scored a shoot with Sally Mann’s tray in Virginia, and went

as far as San Francisco, where he saw Ansel Adams’ preserved studio.

“The darkroom was set up the same as it was when he passed away,” Cyr said.

He said getting access to his heroes was tough at first, but as the project progressed, they began to help him connect with other photographers.

“I felt like I was getting the seal of approval,” he said.

“Developer Trays” at Powerhouse Arena [37 Main St. between Front and Water streets, (718) 666–3049, powerhousearena.com]. March 18 at 7 pm. Free.

Reach reporter Max Jaeger at [email protected] or by calling (718) 260-8303. Follow him on Twitter @MJaeger88.
So meta: A photograph of John Cyr photographing famous developers’ photography trays.
Photo by Stefano Giovannini