The Contact Sheet

I love finding interesting and inspiring photography books on the shelves of used book stores. Rather than scrolling through the photo feeds of social media sites, I'm much happier holding a well printed book of images in my hands. The Contact Sheet, edited by Steve Crist, is a really neat find that I stumbled upon while looking through a local book store recently. The book is a collection of contact sheets by various photographers. It's an eclectic mix that covers art photography, photojournalism, architecture, fashion, portraiture, etc. There are some favorite photographers of mine such as Danny Clinch, Elliot Erwitt, and Arnold Newman. In addition to the more well known masters, there is a good mix of photographers who are new to me.

The premise of this book is great. There is a short bit of background on each photographer along with some anecdotes about the photos. A select image is printed large on either a full page or a double truck spread. Then there are the contact sheets of film strips, slides or film sheets from the shoot. Once I started looking through the pages of this book I couldn't put it down and I read through the whole thing in one sitting. Looking through the contract sheets was a huge learning experience. It's a glimpse into the thought and creative process of the photographers and it was so interesting to see how different photographers worked to get that one shot.

Not surprisingly, the photographers who worked with large format or medium format films tended to get their shot in fewer frames. I'm sure that working with more complex view cameras and expensive film is a big incentive to work methodically and carefully. Or are they simply more likely to settle on something given the time and expense? The 35mm photographers tended to experiment more and really work a scene or subject. Not all 35mm photographers in this collection used the whole roll of film on the same subject. Some seemed to more quickly get what they wanted or needed and moved on. The general tendency to shoot more with the less expensive film with many more exposures available per roll got me thinking about where we are today with digital cameras. The less the cost, the more we shoot. Do we shoot too much? I tend to think so. When I shoot film I tend to be more considering of the subject and my technique. Being more methodical sometimes means missing shots. In general though the keeper ratio with film is much higher for me. What was once cheap photography, 35mm film shooting is rather pricey these days compared with digital capture once the equipment is purchased.

It was interesting to see some of the other shots on the roll of film in the case of some of the more famous images such as Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother or David Hume Kennerly's image of President Nixon leaving the White House for the last time. Post production on some of the photos was also interesting to see. Sometimes drastic crops and extensive dark room work is evident in many of the final prints of the selected images. Even in film days, post production was a vitally important aspect of image production. A particularly amazing example of post production is the work of Jerry Uelsman in this book. Three sets of contact sheets were necessary to show the full collection of images from which he selected frames and composited them into a single image in his darkroom. 

There are some good nuggets of wisdom and back stories. My favorite quote is one by Art Kane, "There is something about a perfectly lit photograph that I find offensive. If the light happens to drop off, so be it. That might produce a certain mystery. I'm interested in withholding some information - in not spelling things out so clearly that they become dull and cold." Kane's select image of a photo shoot with Aretha Franklin is a unique pick. On casual glance it might appear as an errant shot with motion blur. If studied more carefully, the catch lights in Franklin's eyes reveal a pattern of deliberate movement - quite planned and purposeful.

This was a fun, inspiring, and educational book to look through. It's a rare glimpse behind the scenes in image making. It is insightful to see how each photographer got to that final image through the story left behind on their contact sheets. That's something that I wonder if we will regret years down the road with digital media. I know I tend to delete my rejects, leaving no trace of my process. After reading The Contact Sheet, I wonder if I shouldn't keep some of those rejects around. Shoot less, keep more? Might not be a bad thing. Food for thought.