John Cyr’s Developer Trays: A Photographer’s Photography Project

The developer tray of photographer Emmet Gowin.

The developer tray of photographer Emmet Gowin.

It’s difficult to believe that there are, this very moment, an emerging entire generation of photographers that will never have used a manual camera. They will have no concept of a favorite film or one suited to a particular purpose, will have never had to wrestle with a roll of film that won’t load onto the camera sprockets correctly, or suffer the indignity of doing the same in the dark with a developing reel (stainless steel or plastic?). Take this metaphor into the darkroom, the very guts of Photography 101, and there’s a whole other list of things that any “traditionally” trained photographer’s eyes might be bulging out at the thought of omitting from an education. Take, for example, the mixing of developer chemicals, the washing (and re-washing) of fiber-based prints, the highs and hazards of dealing with dangerous raw chemistry that, handled correctly, can yield spectacular results: gold chloride, sodium hydroxide, sulfuric acid. These are the same stuffs that gave us eye-popping contact-sized prints for the nearly two centuries, as well as the stuff that used to blow up attic darkrooms by turn-of-the-century practitioners who didn’t know their chemical properties well enough.  A master printer, John E. Cyr knows and understands this historical connection to the analog and the wet darkroom, and what he’s given us to consider here is a kind photographer’s photographer project (and a collection so wonderful and specific I wish I’d thought of it myself). Imagine someone collecting all of the typewriters or writing desks of their favorite authors, or the paintbrush jars of a catalog of famous painters, or the keyboards of people who built ubiquitous apps and programs that we use everyday, and you’d be approaching the spirit of Cyr’s work from a multitude of disciplines.

Invoking the long-standing tradition of silver-gelatin printing while speaking in the same breath of its total eclipse by the advances of digital photography, Cyr believes that his project is a “timely endeavor.” From his artist’s statement:

The digital advances in photography over the past ten years have been remarkable. Digital manipulation is found in most contemporary work, even within these developer tray photographs…Many photographers, printmakers, and photographers’ archivists’ have already discarded or thrown out their developer trays because they believed they were no longer significant or useful.

I am photographing available developer trays so that the photography community will remember specific, tangible printing tools that have been a seminal part of the photographic experience for the past hundred years. By tilting each tray with its owner’s name and the years in which it was used, I reference the historical significance of these objects in a minimal manner that evokes thought and introspection about what images have passed through each individual tray.

The developer tray of photographer Sally Mann.

The developer tray of photographer Sally Mann.

Begun as his M.F.A thesis work at The School for Visual Arts, Cyr began with a short-list of photographers to contact, which after each visit, photographic documentation of developer trays, and a friendly sit-down chat, begat more photography contacts which begat more contacts. In an interview with CDS, Cyr explained, “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.” The on-going list of photographers whose developer trays that Cyr has managed to contact and photograph is an eye-popping who’s who list of both canonically historic and contemporary luminaries in the field: Ansel Adams, Emmet Gowin, Sally Field, Minor White, Aaron Siskind, just to name a few. The administrative and bureaucratic process itself by which Cyr has had to navigate to realize this project could be seen as its own work of art in and of itself. Sometimes the tray of an influential photographer could not be located, Cyr has explained, because upon the passing of that photographer no one in the estate considered a developer tray to be a thing of value, or understood or cared how integral to the process of making amazing images it was. For a photographer, a developer tray is a necessary tool. For anyone else, it’s just a dirty piece of plastic.

The developer tray of photographer Aaron Siskind.

The developer tray of photographer Aaron Siskind.

Developer trays are the first place one places the paper after the image has been exposed on it under an enlarger. Both film and developing paper have a certain amount of silver in them, and the chemicals in the developer tray detect that silver and turns those that have been struck by light into metallic silver. The residue that you see in the images is that left by oxidized silver that remains in the tray from repeated use (and maybe not being totally rinsed clean and thoroughly dried each time). The trays in Cyr’s series themselves vary in scope of perceived use and abuse, in darkness of stains or apparent absence of them, or reveal that a photographer used an alchemy of additives to their developer brew, such as toner, or potassium ferrocyanide, or something else, all to achieve a specific end look to their images. Sometimes the marks left in the tray just indicate that the photographer would absently push the developer tongs over and over the tray or paper in the course of working. There is certainly something of the artist’s aura in this project, a fetishization of object-ness in a field that has become increasingly about objectless-ness by dint of its materials and output having become largely digital and virtual.

The developer tray from the George Eastman House.

The developer tray from the darkroom of the George Eastman House.

When considering these images, I can’t help but be struck at how alien, foreign and anachronistic—primitive, even—these tools must seem to the emerging population of photographers that have no concept of—or use for—an old, expensive, unhealthy way of doing things. Even as I write this, I find I am still incredibly attached to and nostalgic for my memories of, and thoughts of a possible future in, the safety-light red glow of a darkroom, a place where hours passed with a liberating dissociation from time and space, where music was played loud, and where one wrestled with one’s sense of perfection and craft in an endless loop. It feels sobering and dated that I still own t-shirts that are hopelessly and forever stained with fixitive, that a barn attic in upstate New York held my sturdy workhorse 3-barrel enlarger for five years (and now a garage in Colorado does the same), and that an avalanche of bankruptcies have befallen an industry whose dwindling market share cannot sustain itself despite a devoted, fanatical following of artist practitioners that buy dwindling stock by the refrigerator full, and have spent years perfecting their own recipe of film + developer + paper, only to see part or all of that equation continually shifting or becoming entirely extinct. What is photography 101 if not a study of light-and-dark, apertures, f-stops, and the 3-tray process of develop, stop and fix?

Still, even if kids today don’t have any affection for these artifacts (and just how and why is Aaron Siskind’s tray so very clean?!), I like that Cyr calls our attention to our artistic past by invoking these tools as a kind of reliquary. Where indeed can we move towards, if we do not understand first where (and from whom) we have come from?

This body of work has been showcased in the NYT’s Lens blog, Slate, Wired and numerous other places. The entire body of work can be seen at the project page on his website. A book of the entire project is also available by Powerhouse books. He is represented by the Catherine Edelman Gallery in Chicago.

Once upon a time, I was a contract writer, pitching stories and writing about contemporary photography for 20×200 (and its then other associated brands). The archives disappeared when the company re-structured and re-launched, and some of the people and projects I wrote about then I believe deserve a longer virtual life. Each Thursday for the near forseeable future I will resurrect one such piece, update/embellish it and publish it here. All of these #tbt posts originated on the now defunct Hey, Hot Shot! blog.

James Luckett: Botanist of the Sidewalk

The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world ‘picturesque.’—Susan Sontag, On Photography, 1977

For five years, James Luckett lived in Tokyo: trying alternately to adjust to the city, to adjust his own expectations of himself, and, ultimately, to create for himself something of the experience of living so outside and somewhat alienated from that self. In the beginning, he thought he’d become a chef, and taught himself how to create elaborate Japanese meals. Then he came to the realization that he’d hit a wall unless he made a major investment in mastering the language, and that at his core, while being a more than competent cook, that he was no prodigy. So in his last year in Tokyo, he returned to what he knew, teaching himself something again this time, but something he had already known but discarded: the act of seeing photographically.

Untitled, from James Luckett's Suginami

Untitled, from James Luckett’s Suginami

Everyday then, for an hour or a few hours a day, he’d take long walks with his camera and his dog throughout Tokyo’s wards, or, ku, which is just another way to say that he wandered through the vast interconnected maze of backyards, alleys and sidewalks that make up the city’s neighborhoods. From his artist’s statement:

Houses and apartments there are sited tightly together; narrow streets and even narrower paths wind in around themselves in a maze of walls, fences, gates and plants that carefully delimit private space from public. In, around and through the margins of this place I walked hours every day. Suginami is an exploration of the ways this landscape layers into the edges of a frame, the transformation of light inside the dark box of the camera, and the space of discovery between the viewfinder and the eye.

I think of two things about these photos when I look at and consider the images that make up Suginami: the first is of Luckett as the quintessential flâneur, someone who, in Charles Baudelaire’s words, is, “a gentleman stroller of city streets,” someone who, though a detached observer, plays a key role in understanding and portraying the city, a kind of “botanist of the sidewalk.” The second is rather related to the first, but maybe a bit more spiritually leaning: still the sidewalk walker or stroller, but more in line with one that participates in walking meditations (which in Buddhist literature, one is instructed to, “Notice the beauty of your surroundings, both externally and internally. Smile with every cell in your body“), which is what I believe these walks eventually became.

Untitled, from James Luckett's Suginami

Untitled, from James Luckett’s Suginami

The images on view in Suginami are at odds with my imagined vision of a bustling, crowded and intense city. It’s as if on these walks the city has become a ghost, a place of emptying-out. The light seems bright, midday in character, and the neighborhood homes and apartments are silent, except for the occasional cat. The intimate yet detached view speaks of someone that is familiar with where they are and what they are looking at, but true to both concepts of flâneur and walking meditations, they are somewhat lonely as well—liminal and solitary. I bet when Luckett happened upon that feline shown above, both were equally startled. Deluze and Guattari describe the act of the flâneur’s walks (and specifically in reference to the walks that Virigina Woolfe’s Mrs. Dalloway took) as a “haecceity,” defined simply as a “thisness”, the essence or particularity of a thing itself. They finish off with an observation I find entirely  appropriate to Suginami, saying, “…A haecceity has neither beginning nor end, origin nor destination; it is always in the middle. It is not made of points, only of lines. It is a rhizome.

Untitled, from James Luckett's Suginami

Untitled, from James Luckett’s Suginami

The images in Luckett’s Suginami portfolio are part of a larger and carefully edited sequence that James created for Suginami to exist in book form. You can view the entire series here. When taken as a whole, there’s a sense of not only a quiet walking through, but a working through, going on as well. I’m uncertain whether he knew it or not at the time, but this would be the last year of James’ life in Tokyo. So lastly, the photographs serve in a personal function: they are a farewell to the dissimilar familiar that had made up that epoch of Luckett’s experiences there, and they are simultaneously a prodigal return to self, as these images mark his return and commitment to the practice of photography, which has since been ongoing.

Luckett in recent years settled his studio in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where, in his words: …”he fashions, with a wide range of photographic means, manners, methods and mistakes, images of the abject, troubled, melancholy and grotesque.” Currently James is teaching photography at several institutions throughout Southwestern Ohio: Antioch College, University of Dayton and Wright State University. Recently he was a Visiting Assistant Professor and Head of Photography at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. More images and an accumulation of Luckett’s writings and interests can be found on his website. The book Suginami can be viewed and purchased here, through Blurb’s bookstore. James also can be found stretching the limits of form on twitter and on instagram.

Francine Fleischer and the Watery Depths

For a long while now, I have been imaginatively obsessed with things that I saw in the National Museum of Denmark: mummified and eerily well-preserved remains of young women buried in oak log coffins and thrown into peat bogs; meticulously and gorgeously crafted bronze lurs, used for a single ceremonial occasion and then thrown into peat bogs; religious artifacts in the form of sun-dieties pulled by a horse and then thrown into peat bogs, recovered over two millennia later. The notion that’s been aesthetically and otherwise all-consuming for me in this is that no one really knows why these things got thrown into those bogs. From what can be surmised from the kinds of objects found in them and the condition that they were found in, it appears that only the most precious, the most highly-crafted and prized, are the things that were meant and fit to throw into the bogs.

The idea fascinates: that those who are most beautiful and precious to us and passed from the world too soon, or the most beautiful object a master craftsman has made or will ever make: it is only these rare things that by the very virtue of their preciousness were not meant or fit for human consumption. These are gifts given (and in the cases of beautiful women, sometimes taken by) to the gods. And the quickest method of delivery back in the days of Nordic myth was to throw whatever was most precious and valuable to you into the bog.

Which brings me to the work of photographer Francine Fleischer, whose work on first glance appears to be about summer swimming pleasure seekers, but is actually closer to that whole idea of throwing-things-into-the-bog thing. From Francine’s artist’s statement:

This series was photographed in a sinkhole that was used for thousands of years by an ancient culture for human sacrifice. Today, the deep water is used by thousands of tourists on holiday, for recreational swim. The contradiction of purposes is a bizarre and curious one. The swimmers seem oblivious to the history of the location although the darkness and depth of the water allude to another time and agenda.

Fleischer’s images connote the unsettling disparity of place, use and history of this location very effectively. While we know at first glance that these are individuals idly and happily dog-paddling or back-floating in what seem to be serene waters, there is still this pervasive sense that something unfathomably dark and complex—unquantifiable—accompanies them. The waters themselves, Fleischer tells us, are deep, and the fact of their depth is what made them attractive to prehistoric priests practicing human sacrifice. Ominously, deep waters translate as near black in photographs, and the contrasting whiteness of the swimmers’ flesh can be suggestively read as tokens or tributes to a tendriled and terrifying water god.


Do these swimmers know the history of their fantastic and exotic swimming hole? Would it matter to their holiday plans if they did? Perhaps like other haunted places, there is a specific kind of thrill-seeking to be found by re-contextualizing and re-purposing sacrificial waters for modern-day vacations. Maybe the two extremes aren’t so divergent after all. Fleischer seems to intimate that oblivion and sacrifice aren’t always such strange bedfellows.

In the last couple of years, Fleischer’s series Swim: The Water In Between has been generating a good deal of interest online, in print and in galleries. It has been featured in The Telegraph, Fraction Magazine, Feature Shoot and Harper’s Magazine. A book of the work was published by Utakatado Publishing, in conjunction with an exhibition in Kobe Japan at the Tanto Tempo Gallery in 2014. A very thoughtful review of her installation at Portland’s Blue Sky Gallery can be found online by Richard Speer. Currently images from the series are on display as a part of the CTRL + P show at the Catherine Edelman gallery in Chicago. More images from the series, as well as several other bodies of work deserving of attention, are viewable on Fleischer’s website.

Once upon a time, I was a contract writer, pitching stories and writing about contemporary photography for the 20×200 site (and other associated brands). The archives disappeared when the company re-structured and re-launched, and some of the people and projects I wrote about then I believe deserve a longer virtual life. Each Thursday for the near forseeable future I will resurrect one such piece and publish it here. All of these #tbt posts originated on the now defunct Hey, Hot Shot! blog.