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Contact Sheets: Magnum Contact Sheets

One of the great joys of shooting B&W film is seeing the contact sheets for the first time. For me, there is always a sense of excitement as I try to match what I had in my mind when I took the photos with what actually appears on the contact sheet. Looking at my contact sheets, I tend to go through a whole gamut of emotions. Happiness on nailing a shot, sadness and regret on missing the moment, disappointment on seeing upon hindsight how a composition could have been improved, etc.

“Looking at a contact sheet is, I find, like reconstructing your own human path. It’s a beautiful moment. It’s perhaps even more beautiful – more enjoyable – than taking the picture.” ~Raymond Depardon

Besides the standard technical photography skills I picked up when I first started photography, the contact sheet was one of the best learning tools available to me. It forced me to learn how to edit my work and carefully choose what I wanted to print out. It helped me to step back in time to the point when I was making the photographs and examine what worked and what did not; and what I could have done to improve on the photographs I had made.

“A contact sheet reflects not only what the photographer sees and chooses to capture in time for all eternity, but also their moods, their hesitations, their failures. It is pitiless.” ~Abbas

I remember meeting friends over coffee to go through one another’s contact sheets. Contact sheets are very personal and letting others see them put you in a very vulnerable position. All your mistakes and failures are there. These critique sessions were very valuable for me. I learned how to take the criticisms as well as give a proper critique. When someone gave a critique, they gave a proper explanation why something worked or did not work for them. Egos were put aside. We all understood that we had different preferences and at times, there were no clear right or wrongs. Going through the contact sheets helped us to understand each other’s thought processes. We could see how a composition evolved when a photographer ‘worked’ a subject. These sessions ended with everyone deciding which few images they were going to print and bring for the next session.

“The contact sheet is a valuable instructor. Presumably, when a photographer releases the shutter, it is because he believes the image worthwhile. It rarely is. If the photographer is self-critical, he can attempt to analyze the reasons for the gap between expectation and actuality. How does one think? Could the image be improved by moving backwards or forwards, by moving to the right or left? What would have been the result if the shutter were released a moment earlier or later? Ruthless examination of the contact sheet, whether one’s own or another’s, is one of the best teaching methods.” ~David Hurn

I got a copy of Magnum Contact Sheets early this year. The book features 139 contact sheets by 69 Magnum photographers. The following is from the introduction to the book: “Through the work of Magnum photographers, this volume traces the development and demise of a way of working that was so ubiquitous as to seem an inevitable and inextricable part of the process of photographing: the use of the contact sheet as a record of one’s shooting, a tool for editing and an index to an archive of negatives. The contact sheet, a direct print of a roll or sequence of negatives, is the photographer’s first look at what he or she captured on film, and provides a uniquely intimate glimpse into their working process. It records each step along the route to arriving at an image – providing a behind-the-scenes sense of walking alongside the photographer and seeing through their  eyes. Unique to each photographer’s approach, the contact is a record of how an image was constructed. Was it a set-up, or a serendipitous encounter? Did the photographer notice a scene with potential and diligently work it through to arrive at a successful image, or was the fabled ‘decisive moment’ at play? The contact sheet, now rendered obsolete by digital photography, embodies much of the appeal of photography itself: the sense of time unfolding, a durable trace of movement through space, an apparent authentication of photography’s claims to transparent representation of reality.”

My copy was signed by 10 of the photographers: Gueorgui Pinkhassov, Susan Meiselas, Chien-Chi Chang, Christopher Anderson, Hiroji Kubota, Bruce Gilden, Steve McCurry, Alex Webb, Thomas Hoepker and Elliott Erwitt.

“A contact sheet is full of erasures, full of detritus. A photo exhibition or a book is an invitation to a meal, and it is not customary to make guests poke their noses into the pots and pans, and even less into the buckets of peelings . . . Pulling a good picture out of a contact sheet is like going down to the cellar and bringing back a good bottle to share.” ~Henri Cartier-Bresson (below looking at a contact sheet)

Magnum Contact Sheets is a large book. With 508 pages, it measures around 29.5 x 4.8 x 34.8 cm and weighs about 5kg. The contact sheets in which many iconic images appear are presented mainly by the photographers themselves. You get to see what was taken before and after the final chosen image (i.e. what missed the cut), whether the iconic image emerged from the photographer ‘working’ the subject or if it was a single one-off moment. Some photographers share the context behind the images and you catch glimpses of how they work and how they think.

“A contact sheet is a record of a journey, of a pursuit. It carries all the wanderings around an idea – or, as some would have it, a vision. Some of these wanderings are purely technical: what would happen if I changed the aperture? Did I mess up the exposure? Some are aesthetic: about composition, or a moment in time. These days I work both in analogue and digital photography. In the process of making a selection from digital files, what is often lost is the chance to go back, to retrace one’s steps – to follow the original journey.” ~Stuart Franklin

“I hate looking at my work. I delay it for as long as possible. . . I just know that it won’t live up to my own expectations.” ~David Alan Harvey

“When I look at a contact sheet, I try to remember the feeling I had when I took the frame. The memory of feeling helps me edit. Art for me is really simple. It’s when a feeling overcomes you and you convey your feeling with symbols. In photography the symbols are the thing itself.” ~Larry Towell

There are many examples in the book of how the photographers ‘worked’ the subject. The following 2 contact sheets by Martine Franck who sadly passed away a few days ago show her ‘working’ the subject. Talking about her well known photograph that was shot at the swimming pool in Le Brusc, France in 1976, she says:

I distinctly remember running to get the image, while changing the exposure on my Leica M3 (I used a 50mm lens and Tri X Kodak film), wondering if shutting down to f.16 at a 1,000th of a second would be sufficient. The sunlight on the white tiles was so intense and almost blinding. I remember the man in the background doing his push-ups and waiting for him to be in a taut position. I only had time to take four shots and then the young boy in the hammock turned around and saw me, and the picture was gone.

That is the excitement of taking photographs on the spot. Intuitively one grabs the image, and an instant later the perfect composition has broken up and is no longer to be seen. It’s only when you go back to your contact sheets that you can see how the scene developed in time, which is why contact sheets are a neverending source of fascination to those interested in photography. I chose this precise image because all the elements were in place. There was no second choice possible. It was evident from the start which image should be printed, and there was only one image.”

“It’s generally rather depressing to look at my contacts – one always has great expectations, and they’re not always fulfilled. But then eventually when you get to printing them and living with them, sometimes they become better. I don’t always like to look at contacts because it’s work and you can make mistakes, but it’s part of the process. you have to do it. . . because very often you don’t see things the first time and you do see them the second or third time.” ~Elliot Erwitt

Magnum Contact Sheets (available on Amazon US and UK) is an excellent book and gives readers a good glimpse into a very personal and private area of a photographer’s working life. The only thing that bothered me at times was the size and weight of the book. I am used to holding up contact sheets in my hands, viewing them up close and rotating them to view vertically composed images. With the book weighing in at around 4.5-5kg, this was not possible for me and I found that I had to shift my body around the book to get a better look at the contact sheets which got tiring after a while. Overall, the book is a definite keeper.

“There are always pictures that we forget about, or don’t appreciate, or are disappointed by when we first see them. But, as time goes by, pictures become transformed. They gain in value, both sentimental and visual. I like to be on my own when I look at my contact sheets, because I’m often disappointed when I first look at them. For me it’s an intimate moment that I don’t like to share. But, as years go by, we become proud of our old contact sheets. They are a tool that allow us to fight against time.” ~Raymond Depardon

All photographs from the book featured on this post © Magnum Photos