One of the observations that my tutor made on Assignment 1 was that I didn’t seem to take many shots of each subject, according to the contact sheets I provided. This was absolutely true. I had a very naive assumption that if I saw in the viewfinder what I thought I wanted the picture to come out like when I pressed the shutter, it would be OK. My tutor Dave pointed out that the greatest photographers of yesterday and today have in common the fact that they tend to shoot, and shoot, and shoot – and select the best shot(s) in an editing phase after the event. Change the angle a little, move around the subject, try horizontal format, try vertical format, move your head a fraction to remove a distraction, or to move a focal point to a better position – the possibilities are only limited by your imagination (oh, and your film roll / memory card…)
Anyway – to illustrate this point, he recommended a very fine book called “Magnum Contact Sheets”  that I treated myself to after getting his report, which happily coincided with me having a bit of birthday money to spend (it’s a tad pricey).
The book takes both iconic and lesser-known images from Magnum agency photographers from the 1930s to the 2010s and puts them back into the context of the contact sheet from whence they came. Where possible it also allows the photographer to explain their editing decisions, either through archive materials or contemporary interviews. It’s a genuinely fascinating insight into photographic minds. I used to assume that these professionals knew exactly what they were doing every time they pressed the shutter, but in fact they are plagued with as many doubts as the rest of us – in some cases even more so.
Rather than reproduce any of the contact sheets and resultant images, I thought it would be interesting to hear some photographers’ views on contact sheets, how they use them and what they get out of the process. All quotes are from the book .
“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. […] Ruthless examination of the contact sheet, whether one’s own or another’s, is one of the best teaching methods”
– David Hurn
“In effect, the contact sheet reflects the conscious and unconscious mind of the photographer. Often even the photographer cannot interpret it correctly. Nonetheless, it is through the analysis of contact sheets – a form of self-analysis – that a photographer can try to grasp the direction or meaning that lies behind his own images. This process can be long, but it can also be fascinating.”
– Ferdinando Scianna
“It is 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 never-ending source of fascination for those interested in photography.”
– Martine Franck
“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.”
– Larry Towell
“Contact sheets are mostly a waste of money, I find. 99.9% of frames on the contact sheets are mistakes one makes while photographing. Because it is a waste of money, I love them. There are things in life we must do just because we find them unprofitable. Also, contact sheets are private: they belong to me, whereas photographs, once they leave my hands, take on a life of their own”
– Leonard Freed
“It’s a lot of pictures getting to the good one.”
– Elliott Erwitt
And finally, for the sake of balance, here’s possibly the most celebrated photographer in history explaining why he hated showing his contact sheets, even though he used them as an invaluable tool in analysing the work of others:
“A contact sheet is full of erasures, full of detritus. A photo exhibition or a book is an invitation to a meal, and is not customary to make guests poke their noses into the pots and pans, and even less into the buckets of peelings…”
– Henri Cartier-Bresson
1. Lubben, K. 2011. Magnum Contact Sheets. London: Thames & Hudson