While digital photography has not entirely removed the contact sheet from the photographic process, it no longer serves the essential function that it used to. When film and analog photography were the only option, a contact or proof sheet served as the first preview of one's images after processing their film, and from that, one would make selects and choose a final print. To put it simply, up until this stage, film photographers don't know what they've captured or how they captured it. They just have to believe.
Film photography, as we are reminded by Robert Burley's The Disappearance of Darkness, makes photographers rely on instinct instead of instant gratification. It's what Henri Cartier-Bresson called "the decisive moment" and what made its pioneers, from Guy Bourdin to Richard Avedon, the legends that they are today. For generations of photographers, the contact sheet has been the instrument from which to understand and map one's creative process. It's a roadmap as much as it is a moodboard or a puzzle.
It's important to remember what the contact sheet is in the context of film photography—to acknowledge the hours spent hunched over a grid of thumbnails, imagining which shot would be the best to print. Editor Kristen Lubben accomplished the ambitious task of compiling 139 contact sheets by Magnum photographers and their estates. The final result, Magnum Contact Sheets, has 435 photographs total in color and black and white, showing contact sheets alongside the image that was eventually selected from the group. Seeing them in this way gives unprecedented access into the creative processes of some of the world's greatest photographers.
In the words of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, "In photography we must learn to seek, not the 'picture,' not the aesthetic of tradition, but the ideal instrument of expression, the self-sufficient vehicle for education." The process of "seeking" used to be much more complex than it is now, but we can still cherish the sentiment and remember the importance of preserving quality imaging for years to come.
Buy Magnum Contact Sheets on Amazon for the perfect companion.
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