Home Genres Landscape Photography Contact Sheets: A feast to be absorbed, night after night

Contact Sheets: A feast to be absorbed, night after night

16

In the introduction to the book “Magnum Contact Sheets”, Kristen Lubben tells us how David Hurn and other new inductees into Magnum stayed up late in the Paris office poring over other photographers’ contact sheets to see how they worked — ‘a feast to be absorbed, night after night.’

As contact sheets were typically kept from curious eyes, it only served to increase our fascination with them. Lubben likens the old contact sheet to an illicit reading of someone’s diary. I remember lifting to the light, to better see, a newly developed roll of film cut into neat strips and slipped in between cellophane sleeves. I remember my contact sheets of black and white squares and, much later, coloured rectangles and of the stories they told or hid or missed.

Negatives and Contact Sheets

_____________________

It’s generally rather depressing to look at my contacts one always has great expectations, and they’re not always fulfilled.

Elliot Erwitt

I’ve always thought that Inge Morath’s iconic photo of “A Llama in Times Square” was a perfect example of being in the right place at the right time. Ms Morath walking purposefully in Times Square, camera slung around her neck, happens upon a llama riding in the back seat of a car, its neck sticking out the window. Quick. Click. Iconic photograph.

And surely Elliot Erwitt’s famous “Bulldogs” was the product of a serendipitous encounter. Mr Erwitt out stretching his legs on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, always wearing a camera, of course, chances upon this scene of a pair of bulldogs and their owner sitting on the stoop of a building. Quick. Click. Iconic photograph.

Nothing could be further from the truth. A peek at their contact sheets reveals the real story. Inge Morath’s iconic photo was the result of considerable behind-the-scenes work and planning for a LIFE magazine assignment. She spent a great deal of time getting to know the owners of the animals. There were in addition to the llama, dogs, cats, birds, a pig, a kangaroo, and a bull before taking the photo that is always associated with her.

And Mr Erwitt, God bless him, was indeed out walking with friend Hiroji Kubota, but unfortunately didn’t have his camera with him. He clicked an entire roll on Kubota’s Leica. An entire roll!

What we and the world finally see as a singular iconic photograph is the result of years of experience and hard work by a master photographer. We rarely get to see behind-the-scenes. Without the contact sheets, we might never have known.

In the exercise that follows, I recall the before and after moments from some of my own image galleries, the modern day digital successor to the old contact sheet. If the integrity of the image gallery is uncompromised through deletion or renaming of images, then there is a good chance we can trace the photographer’s steps up to the instant of the making of that one image.

_____________________

In 1953, Marc Riboud left Lyon for Paris. In his first days there he would take one of his most recognisable photographs, that of Zazou, the ‘Eiffel Tower Painter’. He said, ‘Some people ask me, “Did you ask the painter for permission?” I said, “My goodness, no.” ’ After he had taken the picture, he hadn’t thought he shot something interesting until he saw the contact sheet, and then the choice was easy.

Grin

Kids in the rain, Silchar-Bishenpur Road
Digital gallery

On my second trip to the Indian Northeast in 2014 (written up for Macfilos in “The Battle of Imphal & Kohima”) I visited the Bishenpur-Silchar track, one of the key spokes in the Battle for Imphal, the capital of Manipur. With me were my battlefield guides, Hemant and Yai. 

We had driven here after paying a visit to the memorial on Tiddim road in honour of the fallen Japanese soldiers in the bloody Battle of Red Hill in 1944. The mood was sombre, which the rain did little to lighten. 

Paddy fields flanked both sides of the dirt track. The car came to a halt alongside a ditch and we got out. As Hemant began to recount the events of 1944 that unfolded along this stretch of the Imphal valley, a group of two girls and two boys headed our way. 

I focused on the group. I began shooting in horizontal format, but quickly switched the Panasonic GF1 to a vertical format, feeling that too much of the surroundings were being included. In the first couple of frames, the rim of the umbrella that was wedged under an arm almost intruded into the hills in the background. As the kids came closer, I could hear them laughing as they took turns splashing around in the mud puddles. I kept shooting. They were soaked through and obviously enjoying it. By the time one of the lads got closer, I was ready to take the shot. I still remember the boy’s infectious laughter these many years later.

_____________________

David Hurn photographed The Beatles when they were filming Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night in London in 1964. The best part about being a photographer, he said, is that you have to be there to take the pictures. You get to meet the people and often get to know them well. And when you have been given that privilege, it’s up to you to get the best pictures possible. That’s when the contact sheet becomes such a valuable instructor.

The Potter from Salmara

A woman from the Kumhar community of traditional potters in her hut, Salmara, Majuli island, Assam

There is a dying tradition along the banks of the Brahmaputra on the river island of Majuli in Assam. For generations, the few hundred families of kumhars, or potters, settled in Salmara, a small village of stilted huts, have inherited from their forefathers the ancient skills of crafting traditional clay pottery without a wheel. Now this tradition is dying a slow death as the state government puts an end to the digging of clay from the river banks to stop soil erosion. We met up with a member of the kumhar community one day in September 2015.

The kumhars live in flooded fields in huts raised on slender wooden poles. To reach her hut we had to cross over on narrow logs (see article on Macfilos “India: Assam, Bihu and the world’s largest river island”). 

Her room, high above the waterline, was small and cramped, but she welcomed us into her home and made us comfortable on the two charpoys that were there. She spoke about dwindling sales after the new government regulations came into effect and the subsequent stress on the family’s income. She pointed to the few pieces she had been working on that morning. A lump of wet clay lay piled in front of her. She was happy to make a few for us to take home. I took a few photos as she began to demonstrate her pottery technique, using one foot and both hands to turn a shallow dish on a slab of stone. The final result was a rough looking matka, or vase, of grey earth that would slowly cure in the back seat of the car as we headed home. None of the matkas survived the journey back but I will always have this image of an undaunted spirit that lay behind those direct eyes.

_____________________

Philip Jones Griffith’s book Vietnam Inc. was published in 1971. He photographed the war in Vietnam and Cambodia, and for decades after. The great thing about photography, Jones Griffith says, is that you have to be there. He has the negatives to prove it. He didn’t make up the pictures or fake them.

Strange Roots

Red roots, Beraw Tlang
Digital gallery

The day had been spent in and around Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram, with my guide, Rina. It was the third week of January in 2016. 

We had visited the memorial in Treasury Square, erected in memory of the soldiers who had laid down their lives for King and country, then paid a visit to a museum where an electric pole hit by bullets during the insurgency in 1966 was up on display, later we ducked into a church to listen to the choir practice their gospel singing. 

In the afternoon, we visited Solomon’s Temple near the outskirts of town (more in the article “The Blue Mountains of Mizoram” on Macfilos) and on returning stopped by a cemetery perched on a hillside. I was pretty knackered by the time I got back to my hotel in Beraw Tlang. From the balcony I had great views of the city lights and I made a few long exposures. Then the lights went out. 

Lying in bed in the pitch blackness waiting for the lights to come back, I got up to check a bulb flashing outside the room. Somewhere down the driveway, an emergency red light blinked on and off. Each time it blinked on, it lit up a massive tree opposite my door. 

I was lucky I had brought along a tripod. Focusing was almost impossible with the Panasonic LX100’s inbuilt viewfinder, so I set the camera to a small aperture and hoped that the lights didn’t come back on for the next few minutes. Of the four shots I took, only one made the cut, a surreal, other-worldly form spreading its roots caught on camera.

_____________________

Of the cover photograph of his book, Le Forme Del Caos, Ferdinando Scianna says how chance is necessary to taking photographs. The cover shot shows a dog chasing its tail in Benares, India. The idea is simple, he says, an initial photograph when you see the thing, another to get the form right.

Backflip

Boy doing a backflip, Chakmaghat
Digital gallery

The culture of Tripura, to my mind, is quite different from the other Northeast states. Maybe because there are many more Hindu temples here than one would come across in its other sister states. 

The day after arriving in the capital, Agartala, I headed east to Vanghmun in the Jampui Hills. The temperature that April day in 2017 was in the mid-30s (°C) and it was an hour before noon, after which it would get decidedly warmer. 

Somewhere along the route, we made a stop near Chakmaghat where the road ran alongside the Khowai river. The river flowed peaceably. A lone logger used a long pole to nudge and manoeuvre the rafts of bamboo logs downstream. A flat-bottomed boat filled with fishing tackle bobbed gently in the cool shade of a tree. It was a calm and serene scene. 

From my vantage point from the road above, I had an unobstructed view of the river. I set the Leica X Vario at its widest focal length (28mm) and took a couple of shots. That would have been it. A quiet spot to pass the time, nothing more, except for the boy who emerged from the river at that moment. In one fluid motion, he hoisted himself onto the bow of the boat and catapulted himself backwards into the water. I was lucky to get him a split-second before he hit the water — arms, legs and all.

_____________________

In the summer of 1976, Martine Franck on commission to document the French on holiday took the photograph titled Le Brusc. Her architect friend, Alain Capeillères, had invited her to photograph the new pool he had designed for his wife Lucie. Of the photograph she selected from the contact sheet, she says, “Intuitively one grabs the image, and an instant later the perfect composition has broken up and is no longer to be seen.” 

Yachak Chije

Yachak Chije, Tsokarpu, Mechuka
Digital gallery

The interiors of most traditional huts in the Northeast are dimly lit. As you enter, leaving your footwear at the door, your eyes slowly adjust to the shadows, and you begin to make out the blackened fire stove and chimney that occupies the centre of the room. Occasionally, there is a window to let in the light. And so it was in Yachak Chije’s home too (see more on Macfilos “To Mechuka — with two of Leica’s finest M-Mount lenses”). 

Belonging to the Ramo hill tribe, we bumped into her one-day in Tsokarpu, and she invited us up to her house for a cup of tea. Entering, I set the M11 to ISO 800. Even then, the indicated shutter speed varied between 1/90th and 1/125th sec with the lens open. 

I looked around the room while tea was being prepared. There was a hat on a wall, a small sheathed knife attached to a length of string, a big kettle presently being filled with water and some cups and plates, farm implements, a shiny metal flask on a wooden sideboard ⏤ modest possessions of a frugal life. I took half-a-dozen shots of her as we sat around the stove. I hoped to catch just one moment when she was still: her arched eyebrows as she listened attentively, momentarily holding the light in her eyes.

_____________________

If we could pore over other photographers’ contact sheets, I think it would make us all better photographers. David Hurn and the new inductees into Magnum knew that long ago — ‘A feast to be absorbed, night after night, in the Paris office.’


Read more on photography in India



Join our community and play an active part in the future of Macfilos: This site is run by a group of volunteers and dedicated authors around the world. It is supported by donations from readers who appreciate a calm, stress-free experience, with courteous comments and an absence of advertising or commercialisation. Why not subscribe to the thrice-weekly newsletter by joining our mailing list? Comment on this article or, even, write your own. And if you have enjoyed the ride so far, please consider making a small donation to our ever-increasing running costs.


16 COMMENTS

  1. What is so cool about Macfilos boils down to two things! One the Writer photographers and Two their output. The opening paragraph Farhiz says it all “a feast to be absorbed, night after night. “ thank you all…..

  2. Thanks Farhiz for this interesting article. I own the Magnum Contact Sheets book and you have reminded me how interesting and illuminating it is. One thing that is useful when reading it is a magnifying glass as I see the difference between a good photo and an exceptional one can be a small gesture or separation of elements.

    • You’re right, I too had to use a magnifying glass because the details were difficult to make out in some of them. Not in all cases is there a larger version of the contacts available to see. That’s where a digital gallery wins hands down.

  3. Thank you Farhiz. It’s always interesting to look at the contact sheets of images to see how the opportunity changed to make the image. I recall seeing a book published of famous images and their contact sheets.

    In the early days of digital I would print square contact sheets to put in the CD cases I used for archiving images.

  4. Thanks Farhiz for a wonderful and thoughtful article. Great read to start the weekend. Love the selection of your images. The first one of kids in the rain is my favourite.
    I’ve always worked with contact sheets at the time of analog photography. With lightroom or capture or other softwares we get approximately the digital equivalent and can easily choose the best image in a series. It has made things easier.
    Enjoy the weekend

    • Thanks, Jean. Film photography has gotten that cool vibe now. But there are so many advantages that digital offers I don’t see myself ever going back to it. The gallery view is one thing but there are many third party apps that can create contact sheets out there, if you want to give it a go. Never tried them myself since like you say choosing the best image is so much easier now.

  5. Dear mr Dave Seargeant

    In the German Software SilverFast SE there is a funktion called Overview it is more or less at electronic contact sheet, an a screen dump printet is a contact sheet

    Best
    Paul de Kruiff

  6. Nicely put together Farhiz, I often look at other peoples photography for inspiration, but I’d never considered looking at the wider stuff we don’t always see. If only we truly had a modern contact sheet. Wonderful stuff.

  7. Thanks for the article. I found the ‘contact sheet’ idea to be very engaging. And, of course, I got to see some great photos — I think my favorite is the potter from Salmara.

    I did have a question: would you say the Capture One image gallery — as seen in the article — is a fair representation of viewing an actual contact sheet was like in the old days?

    • Thanks, Kathy. Regarding your question, the media is different: paper vs display. DNG files on a display are backlit so they are brighter. Whereas, negatives on white paper have reduced brightness levels. The old additive and subtractive thing. The images on a display can be resized. Not so with contact sheets. It is easier to select an image that has the most promise on a display. If you’ve had the opportunity to view some old contact sheets (preferably b&w) then you would be surprised to see how contrasty or lacking in contrast they could be. It makes selection difficult. So, I’d say it is not a fair representation of viewing an actual contact sheet. But, as I say in the article, if the integrity of the digital gallery is not compromised then it is still possible to trace the photographer’s steps upto the time of making that singular exposure. Hope that helps in answering your question.

  8. Wow! I love this kind of discovery and exploration. I keep coming back to a simple thought: “Photographer as amber”. Being open to surprises and capturing something unplanned.

    Thank you!

    • Thank you, Le Chef. Interesting you say that. Here I think the gear one has and how well one knows it goes a long way in turning a surprise encounter into a success. That’s one thought. Another is, working alone is easier than moving in a group. “Photographer as amber” is probably more on his toes in a group as chances are there are more interactions that can result in interesting pictures.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here