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Magnum Contact Sheets go under the microscope

A heavyweight volume exploring Magnum Photos goes in between the contact sheets to celebrate a dying technique

Often compared with artists’ sketch books, contact sheets are unenlarged “contact” prints, made by laying a sequence of strips of newly developed film directly onto photographic paper and exposing them to a predetermined burst of light from an enlarger. The procedure provides photographers with their first “proof”, enabling a fairly accurate initial assessment of what has been captured on film.

This massive book, weighing more than 5kg, presents a wealth of previously unseen material that offers the viewer a frame-by-frame account, filling in the back story of many of the famous and historic images of modern times. Addressing selected work by 69 of the past and present members of the international photojournalists’ co-operative, Magnum Photos, over the past 70-plus years and linking the procedure to the finished product, it offers intimate insights into the working methods of each photographer.

The contact sheets appear alongside illuminating commentaries written by the photographers or by leading experts chosen by the estates of former Magnum members, together with full-page reproductions of each of the finished images they contain. Given the irrevocable shift from analogue film to digital photography—which encompasses all but three of the current Magnum members—the book becomes something of a landmark, signalling the end of an era. It provides, in the words of the British Magnum photographer and photo book connoisseur Martin Parr, a fitting “epitaph to the contact sheet”.

The book contains 139 contact sheets, more than 200 prints, 60 contextual images and 40 contact-sheet enlargements. It also includes close-up details, selected photographs, press cards, notebooks and corresponding spreads from contemporary publications, such as Life magazine, Picture Post, The New York Times and Time magazine. This diverse material is presented chronologically in seven sections, each representing a decade.

Among the most illuminating aspects of this determinedly epic trawl through Magnum’s back catalogue, which apparently predates the founding of the agency in 1947—aside from the wonderful pictures, of course—is the variety of attitudes evinced by the photographers’ comments on their own contact sheets, specific images, projects and work in general.

Unusually, and with a few exceptions that nevertheless strive to convey deceased members’ points of view, each photographer’s creative stance is refreshingly unmediated by external critical considerations and emerges, for the most part, straight from the horse’s mouth. I feel compelled to single out the always pithy and apposite bons mots of that towering 20th-century media figure and Grand Old Man of photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson: “A contact sheet is a little like a psychoanalyst’s casebook. It is also a kind of seismograph that records the moment. Everything is written down—whatever has surprised us, what we’ve caught in flight, what we’ve missed, what has disappeared, or an event that develops until it becomes an image that is sheer jubilation.”

Cartier-Bresson’s reflections are inimitable. “Pulling a good picture out of a contact sheet,” he concludes, “is like going down to the cellar and bringing back a good bottle to share.”

Magnum Contact Sheets, Kristen Lubben, ed. Thames & Hudson, 508pp, £95 (hb)

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Good bottles up from the cellar'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 244 March 2013