Magnum Contact Sheets

Practice of making a contact sheet is somewhat forgotten in digital age. In the film days there was no digital display to look at at the back of the camera. So usual practice after shooting a roll of film was to make a contact print. Negative was cut into strips and placed flat and then exposed onto one large print.

No post production was done at this stage, no dodging and burning or anything of that nature. The result was a sheet of positives, where photographer or editor could see what was on the roll of film, judge the composition, select the best ones or refer to it later.

Henri Cartier-Bresson looking at contacts at the New York Magnum Office. 1959. © Rene Burri / Magnum Photos

Contact sheets would give you real context of time, place and what went on during the photoshoot, especially if there were other things in the frame. By looking at other photographers contact sheets you can follow their process, formation and development of the idea. Than by looking at all pictures together – a process of selection. Most of Magnum photographers were very consistent on quality of shots, composition and expose. Impressive, considering there was usually little or no time to use a light meter.

What we now use is software like Lightroom for example, but there are some crucial differences. Contact sheet was usually limited to a roll of film (36 exposures), whereas digital can contain hundreds or thousands of images. Secondly there is no tactile feel of holding a physical object in your hands when looking at digital representation on computer screen. Arguably it is also easier to revisit and reflect on the printed collection.

A 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…

Henri Cartier-Bresson


Assignment criteria: 1,2,3


Lubben, Kristen. Magnum Contact Sheets. London: Thames & Hudson, 2011. Print.

“Art of Photography” – You Tube




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