Contact Sheets: The Images Behind the Image
An intimate insight into the working practices of Magnum photographers
Seeing the scene through the eyes of the photographer, each frame of a contact sheet provides an insight into how their mind works when capturing a shot. Then, the edit marks come in, layered and superimposed, showing how the image choices were honed and refined with returns to the sheet. It is, as Kristen Lubben highlights in the introduction to the Magnum Contact Sheets book, “a uniquely intimate glimpse into their working process”.
Contact sheets were an incredibly important tool and an inevitable part of the photographic process until digital photography rendered them obsolete. As Lubben notes, they constitute “a record of one’s shooting, a tool for editing, and an index to an archive of negatives.” Indeed, she continues, the contact sheet “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 claim to transparent representation of reality.”
Contact sheets also represent the economy of the roll of 36 frames, as opposed to the limitless numbers of shots that digital photography affords today. As such, they provide the physical marker of an era when each frame had a value, and was therefore more precious.
The full sequence of history unfolds through the chronology of the contact sheet: Eve Arnold capturing an epoch-defining portrait of Malcolm X, Leonard Freed’s photographs of Martin Luther King being welcomed back to Baltimore after receiving the Nobel Prize. They are an insight into how some of the most iconic images have come into being: we see Elliott Erwitt’s playful eye come through, as he reframes a now-iconic dog with the shoes of its owners on a street in New York. Culturally defining moments are given wider meaning: behind the scenes with Eve Arnold on the set of The Misfits, a young Elizabeth Taylor on the set of Suddenly, Last Summer, and Muhammad Ali posing for a portrait, showing the recurring relationship between Hoepker and the boxer.
Explore the slideshow to view the relationship between single images and contact sheets, and explore the new release of contact sheet prints now available on the Magnum Shop.