A new photo exhibit from the storied Magnum Photo agency allows the public to view the contact sheets of 20 renowned photographers going back to the first days of the agency. That means viewers can see the shots that were taken before and after the photos that they’ve come to know so well.
The exhibition displays prints of the photos alongside the original session’s contact sheets—the pages of un-enlarged thumbnail prints that photo editors use to make selections. It’s a rare look at the shooting process of some of the last century’s best photographers.
Contact sheets have long been a staple of the photo process for publishers around the world. They’re often created as transfers made from direct physical and chemical contact with the negatives. As a result the original format dimensions are retained—a 35mm shot remains 35mm in size. They made for handy organizational and retouching tools, but they’re something of an artifact in the age of digital photos, functionally replaced by an SD card or Photoshop session.
Their borderline extinction is unfortunate since they can be quite revealing. For one, they show a more complete picture of a photographer’s process than the final, chosen shot on its own. Guy Le Querrec’s sheet from shooting Miles Davis in 1969 shows how many ideas he tried, flipping the frame and trying different compositions (it also shows that it was impossible to take an uncool picture of Miles Davis). Seeing the arc of a photo session with James Dean shows that it took a lot of posing to get those pictures with his trademark allure.