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Contact Sheets: Where The Magic And Chaos Of Photographs Comes Alive

From the D-Day landings and Tiananmen Square to Salvador Dalí’s flying-cat hijinks, contact sheets reveal the hidden secrets of unforgettable images

Henri Cartier-Bresson, co-founder of the famed Magnum agency, once likened the contact sheet to the analyst’s couch. “It’s all there: what surprises us is what we catch, what we miss, what disappears.”

Today, the contact sheet has all but disappeared as digital technology has rendered the analogue camera a thing of the past, beloved only of purists and a coterie of young obsessives who fetishise film and the alchemy of the darkroom.

In 2011, the publication of the photobook Magnum Contact Sheets seemed like an epitaph on the whole elaborate, hands-on process of pre-digital photography. We often speak of a photographer honing his or her eye solely through the act of shooting, but perusing contact sheets also honed the eye in terms of selecting images.

How revelatory they could be in illuminating a photographer’s creative choices was hit home to me at the great Robert Frank retrospective, Storylines, at Tate Modern in 2005. The contact sheets for The Americans showed how few frames Frank shot of each subject – just two or three slight variations sufficed. Like many great photographers, he edited in his head as he shot. The use of a contact sheet was a process of utter refinement.

As Robert Capa’s dramatic images of the landings on Omaha Beach on D-day show, the contact sheet is evidence of how a photographer works under extreme duress. Likewise, the young Josef Koudelka’s shots of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, taken at considerable risk on the streets of Prague. Koudelka’s contact sheets, like Capa’s, are both a record of a seismic historical moment and a diary of a frantic creative process. All the visceral energy and edginess of those first days of collective shock and turmoil are captured in photographs that are not always deftly composed or properly exposed. Koudelka was shooting on out-of-date black-and-white cinema film – the only stock available to him – and had to run back to his dark room to reload after shooting every roll.

Four years later, Gilles Peress was on the ground in Derry when British paratroopers fired into the crowd at a civil-rights march, killing 13 civilians. Peress’s contact sheets were integral to the Saville Inquiry into the Bloody Sunday shootings, helping to establish context. In her essay for the Magnum Contact Sheets book, Kristen Lubben notes how a contact sheet can offer detailed evidence, and be used to corroborate or contradict received versions of events. The single photograph may be our defining image of a historical moment, but the contact sheet shows the uncertainty and even unreliability of that moment.

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