These days it is possible to call oneself a photographer without knowing how to use a darkroom. Photographer John Cyr highlights the magic of this endangered process in a series of images of famous photographers’ developer trays. Ansel Adams, Richard Misrach, and Sylvia Plachy are just a few of the photographers whose trays are featured in his exhibit, currrently on display at the Davis Orton Gallery in Hudson, New York.
A developer tray, for those unaware, is that critical vessel, which holds developer solution. When the light-exposed photographic paper goes into it, it makes the picture literally appear before one’s eyes. Even though it’s pure science, the process feels like magic. Simply looking at the photos of these multi-colored trays it’s possible to get a sense of this.
Although some photographers mailed Cyr their trays, he aimed to photograph as many as possible in their natural habitat.
“I have been fortunate enough to photograph Bruce Davidson’s developer tray by the natural light of his New York City apartment, Sally Mann’s developer tray in the backyard of her farm in Virginia, Abelardo Morell’s on the floor of his Massachusetts studio’s darkroom floor, as well as numerous others in various locations throughout the country,” he told me.
Each visit was accompanied by an intimate discussion with the photographer or one of their surviving family members. By they end, every one emphasized the same thing: silver gelatin printing – and therefore a develop tray – had played a critical role in their work.
Cyr estimates that 30-40% of the trays he has photographed are still in use, including some that had belonged to deceased photographers: Ralph Gibson uses Andreas Feininger’s tray, Abe Frajndlich uses Minor White’s, and John Coplans’ tray is used by Amanda Means. The tradition of darkroom printing carries on, regardless of the arguments surrounding it and its supposed demise.