Pulling a good picture out of a contact sheet is like going down to the cellar and bringing back a good bottle to share. (Henri Cartier-Bresson)
‘Magnum Contact Sheets’ is a coffee table book, not just because it looks good on the coffee table but, at 524 pages of 150gsm art paper, it weighs roughly the same. According to the copyright page, the 2014 book is the compact edition.
The premise is simple, iconic images from Magnum photographers are presented with commentary (either from the photographer or Kristen Lubben, the editor) and the contact sheets from which they are extracted, complete with the editor’s chinagraph markings. The result is an insight into how photographers work on location and how they, or their editors, approach the task of selection and editing.
The book starts in pre-Magnum days, with HCB’s image of street kids playing among wrecked masonry in Seville 1933. Almost uniquely among the featured photographers, HCB did not like revealing his contacts. Indeed, it seems that he cut out his usable negatives into separates and would discard those he did not like. He is quoted thus, ‘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’ (Lubben 2014, 18)
However, most contributors had views similar to David Hurn (quoted on p159), “The contact sheet is a valuable instructor. … Ruthless examination of the contact sheet, whether one’s own or another’s is one of the best teaching methods”
That appears to be the raison d’être for this book. Later (p162) Hurn tells us, “Looking at other peoples’ contact sheets allows one to understand their method of working and their thinking processes. When I first came to Magnum, I learned an enormous amount by perusing shelves of books of contacts from Henri Carier Breton, Marc Riboud, Réne Burri, Elliott Erwitt, etc. … What was a revelation to me was that I could see a similar working pattern in virtually all the photographers I admired. Little sequences which show the photographer seemingly stalking the image”
The book includes some classics of reportage. On p50 we learn how most of Robert Capa’s D-Day negatives were destroyed by a darkroom error, and on the following page we see the nine which survive. Pages 208-215 covers Gilles Peress’ images from Bloody Sunday together with a sketch and part of his statement to the Widgery and Saville enquiries.
There is also a leavening of lighter material, such a Martine Franck’s Buddhist monks of 1996 (p403) and Elliott Erwitt’s 2000 ‘Bulldogs’ (p457)
I bought this book as part of my research for EYV Assignment 3 (The decisive moment) for which it was useful (I liked Peter Hurn’s comment about stalking the image). I regard it as essential reading for any topic relating to reportage or documentary work.
Lubben, K (ed) (2014) Magnum Contact Sheets (compact edition) London: Thames and Hudson