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Photographic contact sheets

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Post  eddie Sat Nov 12, 2011 11:06 pm

Magnum opus: magic of the contact sheet

Made obsolete by digital cameras, contact sheets were once an essential part of the photographer's craft. They also lead the viewer to confront questions of reality and artifice

Andrew Motion, Friday 11 November 2011 22.55 GMT

Photographic contact sheets Detail-of-a-contact-strip-007
Detail of a 1948 contact strip featuring the painter Salvador Dali. Photograph: Philippe Halsman/Magnum

Contact sheets, which used to be indispensible to the process of photography, are now a part of its archaeology. Before the arrival of the digital camera, which instantly made them obsolete, they were at once "a record of one's shooting, a tool for editing, and an index to an archive of negatives". The phrase is coined by Kirsten Lubben, editor of Magnum Contact Sheets, a treasure trove from the agency's archives, and it conveys something of the passion she feels for her subject. "The contact sheet," she continues, "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 claims to transparent representation of reality."

Photographic contact sheets Magnum-Contact-Sheets
Magnum Contact Sheets
by Kristen Lubben

The point is well worth making in any context. It turns out to be especially revealing when applied to the Magnum photographers since, even before the formal creation of their organisation in 1947, they tended to concentrate on subjects that had an immediate historical relevance. Several of their pictures (those taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Chim and Robert Capa in Spain, or by René Burri of Che Guevara, or by Burt Glinn during the civil rights campaign at Little Rock High School) have since become a part of the momentous events they recorded. Others (Martin Parr's series Bad Weather, Richard Kalvar's portrait of bespectacled father and son tourists in Rome's Piazza della Rotonda) address less exceptional moments, but nevertherless capture something essential about the mood of their time. To see, as this book allows us to see, the mixture of talent, chance, watchfulness and diligence that lies behind each successful picture, is to confront profound questions about the "reality" Lubben mentions. To put it bluntly, the contacts make us think again about what is staged and what is snatched from the flow of time, and how this affects our judgment of what we see.

On the one hand, we have Capa. Although it has sometimes been said that his most famous picture (the anti-fascist soldier caught at the instant of his death in Spain) is not what it seems but a dramatic staging, there is no doubting the veracity of the scenes recorded here. In his coverage of the battle of Rio Segre (1938), for instance, we follow him image by image as he scrambles after a group of soldiers, crests a little rise, shelters from enemy fire, then photographs a shell-burst before setting off again at a crouching run towards the next engagement. The best-known image from this sequence, which shows the blurred silhouette of a soldier pressing forward through a swirl of debris, catches the moment at which aesthetic considerations combine with absolute truth to experience. There is no fakery in these photographs by Capa; the only "arrangement" is between the eye that sees and the finger that takes the picture.

This kind of actuality can have distinctly useful, as well as more generally valuable consequences. Gilles Peress's contact sheets showing the Bloody Sunday massacre of 1972 were crucial evidence at the Saville inquiry that led to the overturning of the findings of Lord Widgery's original tribunal (the one that acquitted the British army).

At the other end of the spectrum we find works such as Philippe Halsman's Dali Atomicus (1948), which shows the painter jumping into the air at the same time as three cats, a bucket of water and a chair also leap into the frame; and Jim Goldberg's Signing Off (1989), where images of an amorous naked couple are at first obscured by paint and scratches, then hidden altogether by pictures of a static-filled TV screen, below which are added ribbons of descriptive text. In both cases the elements of artifice are overt and unabashed – in the first case to make a point about the complex engineering involved in the creation of surreal effects, in the latter to develop an argument about photography as voyeurism (among other things). In such instances, fakery becomes an indispensible part of the point.

But what do we reckon to "reality" when looking at an image that lies somewhere between these two extremes? In George Rodger's pictures The Blitz, taken in Coventry on 15 November 1940, the morning after the Luftwaffe's most severe bombing raid on the city, a black-capped and dark-coated postman stands on a cobbled street that is still wet from the fire hoses, with a bag of letters slung across his chest. But there is nowhere for him to deliver them – just a heap of brick-rubble, unrecognisable as houses. The juxtaposition seems almost too good (or bad) to be true. Did Rodger set it up? Here for once the contact sheet offers no help. The postman simply appears in a couple of shots, among others showing similarly ruined buildings and written-off cars, then disappears again.

Although we can't hear Rodger telling the postman to "Stand there" to make this picture, it seems distinctly possible. Does this mean we think less of it? Possibly we might have done, in times gone by, when our sense of what was real and what was artificial was more cut and dried. But these days, when notions of truth and authenticity have become so slippery, it seems more likely that we would appreciate Rodger's image for its ingenuity than censure it as a sort of cheat. We are likely to feel that our emotional response to the tragedy it represents is deepened as it is complicated. It is in some sense warmed through by the evidence of human agency.

There are very many reasons to celebrate the images in this huge and beautiful book, and a very wide variety of styles to enjoy. But the way it makes us search new depths in our apprehension of "the real thing" underlies most of them. Insignificant as they may seem, contact sheets have in fact played a significant role in the development of our visual sensibility. For all that they demystify the process of taking a great picture, by showing us the more ordinary hinterland surrounding it, they add subtlety and nuance to our sense of the relationship between photographer and subject, and of the connection between the accidental and the deliberate.
The Gap Minder

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