March 28 – June 2, 2018
It might be difficult to imagine a truly unintentional painting, let alone one that’s a photograph. But John Cyr’s Developer Trays, on view at Elizabeth Houston Gallery from March 28 to June 2, come quite close, notching up abstract expressionism a few degrees closer to its unconscious ambitions. If “form follows function” was destined to be the guiding light of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s careful typologies, then we might say “abstract form follows function” is Cyr’s own. His exacting typology of the developer tray holds the remnants of individual photographers’ printing methods in its traces—painterly expressions in scratches, stains, and patterns—on the surfaces of their unwitting plastic canvases.
The developer tray is the most unassuming of objects, and Cyr insists upon that quiet objecthood. Photographing in a uniform style, the artist is uncanny in his ability to capture its painterly abstractions and the materiality of its functional construction. This is a technique that, paradoxically, reveals the intimacy of personal artistic practice and the gravity of photographic history writ large. Cyr sought out photographers, some iconic, others virtually unknown beyond the hallowed halls of the academy, to capture a collective moment on the verge of oblivion. That moment, of course, was not slight. For over 100 years, the unobtrusive tray had held forth as the standard bearer of silver gelatin printing. We do well to remember that the developer tray had long withstood the obsolescence to which technology in our time seems perennially fated. A printer himself, Cyr is uniquely attuned to the evidence the developer tray holds as an implement of private practice. Its hues and marks are loaded.
Resembling a Rothko, Linda Connor’s deep blue tray is an inscription of the artist’s 40 years of circular agitation at the surface of print emulsion. John Draper’s, by contrast, resembles a metallic lunar plane, its layers storing bits and pieces of the silver residue that had brought into being the very first photograph of a woman hundreds of years before. It is possible, with some forensic insight, to discern the habits of the makers in the shapes and forms of the trays’ chemical paintings.But it is probably unnecessary. Cyr’s archive developed organically over time, a self-selecting history of photography that wound its way to him circuitously through connections and chance. His Developer Trays are more found objects, in that sense, than they are the careful execution of a Who’s Who of the medium or a textbook rendition of silver gelatin printing. You need not know the individual maker to appreciate the conceptual framework of the series or the beauty of any single tray. And, at the risk of sounding sentimental, they are indeed beautiful meditations on color, line, form, and feeling.
Limned with hues of orange, blue, red, green, and, yes, silver, Cyr’s Developer Trays are perhaps best appreciated for their exquisite objecthood. It is one that straddles an abstract expressionism freed from the materiality of substrata (and all intention, at last) and the insistent physical presence of the history of a medium. That paradox, after all, is key to deciphering Cyr’s found abstractions.
– Robyn Day
Robyn Day is a Chicago-based photographer and freelance writer for Photograph. She previously wrote art criticism for WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station, and Art New England. She works in external affairs at the Art Institute of Chicago.
John Cyr was born in 1981 and is currently based out of New York, NY. Cyr received his MFA from the School of Visual Arts in 2010 and holds a BA in photography from Connecticut College. His work has been featured in a variety of publications including the New York Times, BBC News, ARTnews, TIME, NPR, Popular Photography, the Telegraph and Photo District News. He is also the author of the powerHouse published monograph, Developer Trays. Cyr is the recipient of a variety of awards from influential organizations including Photolucida, Photo District News, the International Photography Awards, The One Life Photography Project, The Daylight/CDS Photo Awards, and the School of Visual Arts. His work has been exhibited widely both nationally and internationally and is featured within the permanent collections of The George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film, Rochester, NY; New York Public Library, New York, NY; Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Washington, D.C.; and the American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY.