A Photographic Scavenger Hunt: Conversation with John Cyr

John Cyr is a Brooklyn-based photographer, master printer, and a graduate from SVA’s Photography MFA program. He began the Developer Tray series as his thesis project and has spent nearly two years shooting photographers’ developing trays all around the US. I spoke to John now that his project is nearing completion.

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Mark Cohen’s Developer Tray. Photograph by John Cyr.

Paula Kupfer: Have you finished the project? And did you photograph sixty trays as you set out to do?

John Cyr: I’m definitely in the final stages, and past the sixty—I’m at sixty-five now. I have only a few more appointments set up. I’m very comfortable where the collection is. Now I’m figuring out how to take it into book form, and how much of the personal experience to include.

PK: It’s a fascinating part of the project.

JC: I get that a lot. People’s interest is piqued when they find out, for instance, that I went to Sally Mann’s farm and actually photographed the tray there.

PK: In this context, the photograph is the result of a long process, and there’s some mystery to it. Did you meet many of the photographers?

JC: There are a few that I never met, where l just dealt with their assistants. Others were mailed to me. But for at least eighty percent, I visited in person. Some were ten-minute talks; others, two-hour conversations. For instance, I had a great day with Larry Fink. I spent the day out on his farm, and stayed for dinner. He had peacocks running around, and an emu.

PK: You weren’t tempted to photograph the periphery—their houses or surroundings, or the photographers themselves?

JC: I only photographed with my cellphone. With every photographer that I approached, I made sure to be overly humble and gracious. I think that a lot of the reasons that well-known photographers accepted to participate was because it wasn’t so personal. Photographically, maybe. But I didn’t say, “I’d love to take a portrait of you while I’m there.”

I wanted to respect their privacy and not be aggressive. But I regret not recording anything while I was there, especially now, as I’m going back and trying to put the pieces together. I have notes, which are good, and I have my memory, but there’s a lot that’s lost in time.

PK: Do you consider this a greater reflection of the project? It deals with nostalgia and the past, and something that’s being lost…

JC: Yeah, that’s interesting, and a good way of putting it. This is what I’m trying to bring together for the book – the experience, the fleeting moments, the experience of going and meeting with these photographers.

PK: Do you think of the project as an archive?

JC: I do. And, as far as the archive goes, it almost heightens the fact that each of these objects is so physically beautiful—because of the colors, but also because it’s a picture of this object that has literally experienced the hands of the artist.

Personally, this project has the greatest sense of purpose within the history of photography, and the current state that we’re in. Not necessarily for representing a longing for silver printing, because it hasn’t disappeared, but just shifting from being almost the standard to being almost nonexistent.

PK: How do you relate this project to the rest of your work?

JC: I’m trying to figure that out. I’m interested in continuing to work on the idea of analogue photography. This project deals with the analogue process but they’re not analogue prints. I really want to get back into the darkroom with my own work. How it’s going to manifest itself, I don’t know yet.

I’m still happy about my previous, documentary work, but it was difficult to separate myself out from other work that people do at any given place/time. I think that this project has taken off so well because of its iconic imagery. If you see one tray, you remember the project. How I can possibly bring that to another body of work, I’m still figuring out. I don’t want to find myself falling into a trap of doing just that—isolating an object in the same way, showcasing it for the sake of its own personal history. I could go photograph typewriters of well-known writers, or recording instrument of old analog studios—it’s never-ending. But I don’t want to do that. I know that this was a shift from my previous work, and where it will go next, I don’t know yet. But it’s going to be different.

To learn more about John Cyr’s work, visit his website www.johncyrphotography.com.

Paula Kupfer is the editorial and circulation coordinator for Aperture magazine.