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In the Introduction to Magnum Contact Sheets, editor Kristen Lubben examines Magnum Photos’ longstanding tradition of preserving its photographers’ contact sheets

Often compared to an artist’s sketchbook, contact sheets are certainly more unrelentingly all-inclusive than that analogy would suggest. There is no removing or erasing the unsuccessful steps on the way to the final product ­ each twist and turn, each decision, is recorded, allowing viewers to see along with (or perhaps second-guess) the photographer. Contact prints are the proof that I did something wrong. Perhaps I could have moved the camera two feet this way or that, or waited until the sun was in a slightly different position. They show how difficult the medium can be. Here, Bevan Davies expresses an apprehension common to many photographers: that contact sheets reveal too much. The illicit quality of the contact sheet is the source of much of the viewer¹s fascination with it. Like reading someone’s diary or looking in their closet, the contact is not meant for public consumption. As Cartier-Bresson noted, 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. A contact sheet is a diary of experiences, a private tool that records mistakes, missteps, dead ends ­ and lucky breaks. longstanding tradition of preserving its photographers contact sheets

The experience of viewing contacts is almost invariable an intimate, even physical one. Because they are intermediary products rather than the finished result, they are used in the privacy of the studio or editing workshop rather than displayed publicly. Their small size demands physical proximity, and they are often scrutinized with a loupe, a specialized magnifying glass held between the eye and the contact, bringing the sheet almost in contact with the face. Grease pencil or China marker notations in different colours indicate personal observations; throughout this book, one can see how unique these are to each maker, and how the physical trace of the photographer’s hand can be felt on the contact. longstanding tradition of preserving its photographers’ contact sheets

The establishment of Magnum in 1947 presented a new working model for photographers. Conceived by Capa and Chim with Cartier-Bresson and George Rodger, the organization was envisioned as a collective that gave photographers autonomy from the all-powerful magazines and control over their copyright, editing and choice of assignment. (They were initially joined by photographer William Vandivert and his wife Rita, but they parted ways with the organization not long after its founding.) Crucially, the photographers’ partner in this fledgling enterprise was Maria Eisner, founder and director of the Paris-based Alliance photo agency, which had launched Capa’s career. Eisner no doubt brought essential skills as to how to organize and market the work of multiple photographers, and may have been responsible for establishing the archives and working methods in the offices, including the use of contact sheets. longstanding tradition of preserving its photographers’ contact sheets

Nearly from the outset, duplicate sets of contact sheets were deposited in Magnum’s Paris and New York offices, with a set kept by the photographers. When looking at contacts it is useful to keep in mind that there is often not one master contact sheet; unlike negatives, there can be multiple sets of contacts, not only with different editorial markings but even printed in a different sequence or layout. Understanding each photographer’s working process, or who made the contacts on their behalf, is crucial. longstanding tradition of preserving its photographers’ contact sheets

Until as recently as 2000, when photographers applied to Magnum, they needed to show contact sheets, not just finished prints. That’s so you could see their thinking, Morris said. He recalled looking at one hotshot Blackstar photographer who had covered a big story and who overshot terribly. I saw fifty rolls, fifty contact sheets from him and there wasn’t a good picture in the whole thing. Cartier-Bresson would apparently rotate contact sheets in his hands, looking at them from all angles, assessing the formal composition of the photographs (and no doubt alarming the photographer whose work was submitted for scrutiny). According to René Burri, He always turned them all around and upside down. It became like a sort of dance. Strangely he didn’t want to look at the picture! David Hurn and other photographers have described the thrill of being a new inductee into Magnum and staying up late in the Paris office to go through other photographer’s contacts to see how they worked: When I first came to Magnum, I learned an enormous amount by perusing shelves of books of contacts from Henri Cartier-Bresson, Marc Riboud, René Burri, Elliott Erwitt, etc. A feast to be absorbed, night after night, in the Paris office on rue de Faubourg Saint-Honoré.

Excerpted from “Magnum Contact Sheets.”
Copyright © 2011, 2014 and reprinted by permission of    Thames & Hudson Ltd, London.

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