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Theory & Practice

Contact Sheets: The Images Behind the Image

An intimate insight into the working practices of Magnum photographers

Magnum Photographers

Eve Arnold US actress Marilyn Monroe on the Nevada desert going over her lines for a difficult scene she is about to play with Clarke Gable in the film 'The Misfits' by John Huston. Nevada, USA.1960. © Eve Arnold | Magnum Photos
Eve Arnold Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift practice a scene during the filming of 'The Misfits'. Nevada, USA. 1960. Contact sheet. © Eve Arnold | Magnum Photos
Eve Arnold Malcolm X during his visit to enterprises owned by Black Muslims. Chicago, Illinois, USA. 1962. © Eve Arnold | Magnum Photos
Eve Arnold Malcolm X's visit to various entreprises owned by Black Muslims. LIFE magazine assigned Eve Arnold to document the controversial and intensely charismatic Malcolm X. For nearly a year, Arnold follo (...)
Thomas Hoepker Muhammad Ali in a boxing outfit posing for studio photographer. 1966. © Thomas Hoepker | Magnum Photos
Thomas Hoepker Muhammad Ali in a boxing outfit posing for studio photographer. 1966. Contact sheet. © Thomas Hoepker | Magnum Photos
Burt Glinn Twenty-five-year-old Elizabeth Taylor on the set of 'Suddenly Last Summer', in which she co-stars with Katharine Hepburn and Montgomery Clift. Sagaro, Spain. 1959. © Burt Glinn | Magnum Photos
Burt Glinn Elizabeth Taylor on the film set of 'Suddenly Last Summer" this was Taylor's first film after the death of her 3rd husband, Mike Todd, in a plane crash. Just months after Todd's death, Taylor marri (...)
Dennis Stock James Dean. New York City, USA. 1955. © Dennis Stock | Magnum Photos
Dennis Stock James Dean withdrawn and timid looking, "East of Eden" had just opened at the Astor Theater after a celebrity studded preview. Jimmy neither attended the previews or the opening, "I can't handle th (...)
Leonard Freed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. being greeted on his return to the US after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. Baltimore, Maryland, USA. October 31, 1964. © Leonard Freed | Magnum Photos
Leonard Freed Baltimore, Maryland, USA. October 31, 1963. Contact sheet. © Leonard Freed | Magnum Photos
Jonas Bendiksen Satellites. Altai Territory, Russia. 2000. © Jonas Bendiksen | Magnum Photos
Jonas Bendiksen Villagers collecting scrap from a crashed spacecraft, surrounded by thousands of white butterflies. Environmentalists fear for the region's future due to the toxic rocket fuel. Altai Territory, R (...)
David Seymour "I photographed Sophia in 1955, a budding actress, we talked over the phone and I explained what I wanted.She invited me over for a Sunday morning early meeting, I found her in bed in a dark blue n (...)
Elliott Erwitt Chihuahua. USA. New York City. 1946. © Elliott Erwitt | Magnum Photos
Elliott Erwitt Chihuahua. USA. New York City. 1946. Contact sheet. © Elliott Erwitt | Magnum Photos
Ian Berry Affection between two people in a multi-racial cafe. Gauteng, Fordsburg, Johannesburg, South Africa. 1961. © Ian Berry | Magnum Photos
Ian Berry A multi-racial cafe with a jukebox. Fordsburg, Johannesburg, South Africa. 1961. Contact sheet. © Ian Berry | Magnum Photos
Eli Reed Model and actress Tyra Banks embraces film director John Singleton, 1994. © Eli Reed | Magnum Photos
Eli Reed Model and actress Tyra Banks and director John Singleton. Los Angeles, California, USA. 1994. Contact sheet. © Eli Reed | Magnum Photos
Guy Le Querrec US trumpet player Miles Davis. Salle Pleyel concert hall, 8th arrondissement, Paris, France. Monday 3rd November, 1969. © Guy Le Querrec | Magnum Photos
Guy Le Querrec US trumpet player Miles Davis. Miles Davis Quintent includes : Miles Davis (trumpet),Wayne Shorter (tenor saxophone), Chick Corea (keyboards), Dave Holland (bass), Jack DeJohnette (drums). Salle Pl (...)
Bruno Barbey Students hurling projectiles against the police. Boulevard Saint Germain, 6th arrondissement, Paris, France. May 6th, 1968. © Bruno Barbey | Magnum Photos
Bruno Barbey Students hurling projectiles against the police. Boulevard Saint Germain, 6th arrondissement, Paris, France. May 6th, 1968. Contact sheet. © Bruno Barbey | Magnum Photos
Chris Steele-Perkins Market Tavern. Bradford, UK. 1976. © Chris Steele-Perkins | Magnum Photos
Chris Steele-Perkins Chris Steele-Perkins captures iconic portraits of ‘Teddy Boy’ fashion in Market Tavern in Bradford, UK. The ‘Teds’ were a flashily dressed and rebellious youth movement that originated in Britain i (...)
Herbert List Dogs In Italy. Portofino, Liguria, Italy. 1936. © Herbert List | Magnum Photos
Herbert List Reconstructed contact sheet for the image Man and Dog in Portofino. Liguria, Italy. 1936. Contact sheet. © Herbert List | Magnum Photos
Abbas Armed militants outside the United States Embassy, where diplomats are held hostages. Tehran, Iran. 1979. © Abbas | Magnum Photos
A. Abbas These black and white images are a portrait of Iran’s political atmosphere in 1979. This contact sheet shows images of the Iran hostage crisis, where US diplomats were held against their will for 4 (...)
Martin Parr New Brighton, UK. From 'The Last Resort'. 1983-85. © Martin Parr | Magnum Photos
Martin Parr Last Resort contact sheet containing one of Martins most famous Images. 2012. Contact sheet. © Martin Parr | Magnum Photos
George Rodger A gathering of the Nuba tribe in the Korongo Jebels. The Nuba pride themselves as wrestlers, their tribal sport. They are powdered in wood ash so they can get a grip on each other. Kordofan, Sudan. (...)
George Rodger The Nuba tribe from the Korong Jebels (hills) in the Kordofan are of Sudan are herdsmen with cattle that graze in the lower valleys. In 1949 Sudan was governed by a condominium government of Britis (...)
Hiroji Kubota The Golden Rock at Shwe Pyi Daw (the "Golden Country"), the Buddhist holy place. Kyaiktiyo, Burma. 1978. © Hiroji Kubota | Magnum Photos
Hiroji Kubota The Golden Rock at Shwe Pyi Daw (the "Golden Country"), the Buddhist holy place. Kyaiktiyo, Burma..1978. Burma. Contact sheet. © Hiroji Kubota | Magnum Photos
Martin Parr O'Connell Bridge. From 'Bad Weather'. Dublin, Ireland. October, 1981. © Martin Parr | Magnum Photos
Martin Parr Martin Parr captures passersby grappling with an unseen yet visible force: bad weather, in this contact sheet from the series and debut book, Bad Weather, shot in O’Connell Bridge, Dublin, Ireland, (...)

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.