Photography / Features

A Studio Visit with John Cyr


John Cyr is an archivist of change. First recognized for his series of photographs of the developer trays used by influential, analog photographers, his work meditates upon the spaces between old and new. Cyr’s photographs are shaped by a practice steeped in formal and conceptual rigor. His darkroom abstractions flirt with the boundaries of photographic representation while his images of Brooklyn and Manhattan deploy a rich aesthetic vocabulary to communicate the effects of urban development and gentrification.

Photographs © John Cyr

Cyr’s work has been featured by the New York Times, Time Magazine, and BBC News, among others. Selections of his work are housed in the George Eastman House, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, and the New York Public Library. He teaches photography at Suffolk County Community College. I caught up with Cyr near his old haunts, in the Meatpacking District in Manhattan.

Developer Abstraction 7.12.2015; Courtesy of the artist

B&H: How did you get started with photography?

John Cyr: I went to Connecticut College, in New London, to study photography in the Visual Arts Department. During that time, I spent two summers up at the Maine Media Workshops; I worked in the darkroom as a work study student and went back there as a darkroom intern the next year and had the opportunity to assist Jim Megargee and George Tice with their classes. After graduating, I contacted Jim, who ran MV Labs on Little West 12th Street, in Manhattan, and told him I’d love to print, and he gave me a job. That was really the beginning.

It was right at this bizarre time when digital was making great strides but many people were still of the mindset that film was better. I had already fallen in love with analog printing, and I strove to be a master printer. I worked at MV Labs for five years, where I got to print for photographers and artists like Matthew Barney, Gordon Parks, Marilyn Bridges, and James Nachtwey.

15th Street Stairway, Brooklyn, NY, 2005 and Wall Composition, New London, CT, 2002; Courtesy of the artist

Was it difficult working for such established artists? I imagine an unforgiving clientele.

Amazingly, not as much as you would expect. The difficult part was getting their styles down. Once you got that you could knock out their prints. With certain artists, you would have to spend more time doing reprints, so I would factor that in. It was really as much about customer relations and being accommodating as anything else. It was really inspiring to get to work with such amazing artists.

In about 2007, I realized I didn’t want to do that forever. I went back to school and I got my M.F.A at the School of Visual Arts. My connection to the darkroom ultimately led to my thesis project, which was the developer trays.

209 West 14th Street, April 9th, 2009; Courtesy of the artist

How many of the trays did you document for your thesis?

I had about twenty. There are eighty-two in the book. Shooting the trays was never my full-time job. If I was constantly doing it I could have probably finished in a year, but it ended up taking me four years.

How did you go about tracking down so many?

I started in New York. I already had connections from working at MV Labs and my own studio in DUMBO, where I was printing for Bruce Davidson, Mark Seliger, Barbara Mensch, and others. I also had access to the community at SVA and their contacts. I had a starting point of about twenty photographers and I worked from that. And then it was just this kind of snowball. I would go to work for someone and bring up the project. It grew organically.

Sally Mann’s Developer Tray, 2011 and Jerry Uelsmann’s Developer Tray, 2013; Courtesy of the artist

Any particularly memorable characters?

Pretty much everybody. While I was still in school, I was able to get in touch with Ansel Adams’ son, and I did a whole California trip, during which I shot about fifteen photographers over two weeks. It was amazing to go into Ansel Adams’ house—which was almost all wood inside and out, and overlooking the shore. Adams’ darkroom was still set up as it was when he was working. Going up to Larry Fink’s farm was also amazing, taking pictures with peacocks and spending the whole day up with him. When I was shooting Sally Mann’s tray at her home in Virginia, she had three dogs there and one of them was jumping on the tray while I had the 4 x 5 set up.

It’s surprising that so many had hung onto their trays.

I ran into the same thing when I was going through undergraduate—it was this weird time in between analog and digital. Some photographers had already thrown them out by 2010, 2012—but a lot had spent their whole career printing in the darkroom or having other people make prints for them. It wasn’t essential to learn all the new tricks to keep going the way that they had traditionally done things.

Ansel Adams’ Developer Tray, 2011; Adam Fuss’s Developer Tray, 2011; Courtesy of the artist

Despite being on the road, you were able to maintain a consistent aesthetic across the series. What did these photographs look like behind the scenes?

Almost everything I would shoot outside with natural light. There was something about the environment—if there was something I wish I would have done for my own memory it would be to take a picture of where I took all the trays, just to remind myself of what it looked like where I was in this landscape.

You were shooting with your 4x5?

Right from above, as simple as can be. Leveling everything out, then shooting maybe four or five sheets of film. Sometimes they’d have a couple of different trays so I’d shoot them all then pick my favorite so there would be just one for each photographer.

At first I was shooting on black-and-white film, but the results were boring. So many of the nuances in the trays are lost without the color. I’d never processed color, but after all my years of being a professional printer, I wanted to have control, so I would scan the negatives and do all the retouching and make the prints.

Kind of a poetic marriage of old and new.

The project wasn’t imagined as nostalgia for a time when everything was great with black-and-white; it was more about using all the tools that we have today.

420 East 14th Street, April 9, 2009; Courtesy of the artist

Much of your work engages with issues that surfaced during photography’s conceptual turn in the 1960s and ’70s. Seriality and repetition, for example, are recurring themes.

I’ve been influenced by Bernd and Hilla Becher—and by typologies in general. This idea that you can have the simplest of ideas and then go and execute them, just from putting the time in. Then someone can view it and either take it very simply or get lost in the nuances. Repetition is a huge part of my thinking process and my creative process.

The Bechers continued documenting many of their industrial subjects until Bernd’s death. It would seem, especially with the developer trays, that such a project could go on forever.

They are kind of infinite. I could be this collector and I can keep going back and doing it. But I just somewhat arbitrarily decided it was time to do something different. I haven’t shot a developer tray since 2014, when the book was published. That doesn’t mean that if Irving Penn’s tray shows up in front of me and I’m asked to shoot it, that I won’t. But this kind of somewhat arbitrary closure is the only way that I’ve found that I can put an end to things. I love the developer tray project, I loved meeting all of those amazing photographers, but I didn’t want to do it forever.

Bond Street, Brooklyn, NY; 2008; Courtesy of the artist

How do you balance the conceptual and aesthetic aspects of your work?

Aesthetics are always paramount for me. The images need to be aesthetically pleasing. The concept doesn’t really work beyond those general aesthetics. With my 14th Street work, I tried to let that go a little bit, and I did a kind of point-and-shoot aesthetic. Even though I was using a Mamiya medium format camera, I was mostly just lifting the camera and shooting. With the Gowanus work, I think there is something that is formalist, especially the black-and-white photographs that I took. I shot those with the 4 x 5. There is something about place. Place plays a large role in my work.

5th Street, Brooklyn, NY, 2008; Courtesy of the artist

You are drawn to spaces in transition.

I found Gowanus to be a place that had a sort of feeling—that it was a neighborhood that had one life, and now has a different life, and there is a little bit in-between. Right as I was shooting it, Bloomberg had just re-zoned a bunch of commercial spaces as residential, so it was literally a shift wherein these big open industrial spaces were getting torn down and cleaned out for residential spaces. But there were still working industries—and some are still there.

Developer Abstraction, 7.12.2015; Courtesy of the artist

What have you been working on recently?

I’m doing some camera-less photography. I’ve also begun going to the shore in Long Island to make seascapes—close and abstract—of rolling waves. Then I’m going in the darkroom and putting different amounts of developer on different parts of the prints along with bubbles. I’ve been pleased with how they look. It’s starting to come together. With the darkroom being such an important part of my career, both as a printer and an artist, I am excited to be creating work that includes my own specific developing process.

Ocean Abstraction, 7.1.2016; Courtesy of the artist

Each print is unique.

Even if they are made by the same negative, there will never be two that look the same.

Cory Rice

John Cyr

A more comprehensive look at John Cyr’s work can be had on his website. The complete Developer Trays series is available in book form from powerHouse Books (2014). He is represented by Catherine Edelman Gallery.

This article is part of an ongoing series of interviews with New York City-based artists focusing on contemporary photographic practices.