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Books: A heavyweight volume trawls the archives of Magnum Photos to celebrate a once revolutionary, now dying technique

In between the (contact) sheets

Often compared to 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 65-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 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 present and irrevocable shift from analogue film to digital photography—which encompasses all but three of the current members of Magnum Photos—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’s dust jacket cleverly imitates the appearance of a box of photographic printing paper, and the volume includes 139 contact sheets, more than 200 prints, 60 contextual images and 40 contact sheet enlargements. Encompassing the full range of black and white and colour stock, from standard 35mm through medium and large to panoramic formats, plus examples of digital scanning, filing and editing from colour negatives, 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, starting with Henri Cartier-Bresson’s early images of children at play in Seville, 1933, and ending with Jim Goldberg’s Proof, 2010, an installation of more than 650 large-format contact prints of people he has encountered.

Kristen Lubben, the book’s editor and the associate curator at New York’s International Center of Photography, provides the introduction, an accessible and informative essay that “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”. She explains how contact sheets only came into use with the introduction of smaller, lightweight, handheld 35mm cameras, such as the Leica, in the mid-1920s. The reduced size of the negatives they produced, compared with the far larger ones made using 19th-century equipment, obliged early 20th-century photographers to resort to contact sheets for the entire roll of film, as opposed to individual plates, to determine exactly what had been captured and select frames for enlargement as working prints.

The procedure went hand in hand with contemporary rapid advances in photomechanical printing techniques and the enormous growth in publishing that resulted. The huge demand for a never-ending supply of fresh images from all over the globe finally established the contact sheet as the essential conduit not just for editing images, but for their distribution and worldwide marketing. Its ascendancy continued beyond the boom in illustrated publications of the mid-20th century, only to see a protracted demise towards the start of the new millennium, with the advent and gradual improvement of digital technology, which first allowed film to be scanned and eventually supplanted it altogether.

Meanwhile, the increasing general interest in photography itself (from the 1960s and 1970s onwards) and a renewed focus on the creative process per se would ultimately, as in this volume, turn an essential working tool into something approaching the holy grail of photography. Today, it has become an indispensable archival resource and index to a wealth of visual material that can be revisited, reinterpreted, revalued, recontextualised, admired and enjoyed almost indefinitely—unlike digital files, the very permanence of which in cyberspace or degradable digital vaults is rather more questionable.

Among the most illuminating aspects of this determinedly epic trawl through the back catalogue of Magnum Photos, which apparently predates the founding of the agency in 1947, is—aside from the wonderful pictures, of course—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 the 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 bon 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.”

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

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'In between the (contact) sheets'