The decisive moment

Magnum Contact Sheets reveals what went into achieving the perfect photograph in the years before the digital revolution

Photographer Martin Parr has described the latest book from the Magnum agency as an “epitaph to the contact sheet”. Digital imagemaking allows  photographers to edit their images in-camera or on-screen, making the contact sheet – the series of thumbnail images from which a photographer or editor would pick a favourite to enlarge and print – redundant. But within those sheets lie some fascinating stories.

Magnum Contact Sheets contains 139 film sequences from 69 photographers, and each is shown with the pictures that were finally chosen for print reproduced alongside. The shots that didn’t quite make it, those that for reasons of composition, framing, light etc, just didn’t cut it, can be almost as interesting as those that did. A case in point is Peter Marlow’s portrait of Margaret Thatcher, the pick of some 48 shots taken of her while making a speech at the 1981 Conservative Party conference. The successful ingredients of the chosen image, redolent of the ‘hero shot’ that world leaders aspire to, are starkly apparent when set against the rows of rejected images. The sheets for Stuart Franklin’s 1989 shot of the lone protestor standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square reveal the unexpected circumstances of the shot. The final image suggests proximity on Franklin’s part, but in fact, as the contact sheet reveals, he was actually some distance from the action and using a telephoto lens.

Some of the contact sheets are further enlivened by their captions. A series of handwritten notes explain why some of the images on the way to Philippe Halsman’s joyous 1948 photograph of Salvador Dalí were unsuccessful, from “water splashes Dalí instead of cat” to “secretary gets into picture”. These mistakes were of course an important part of Halsman’s journey to achieving his final shot, titled Dalí Atomicus.

Magnum Contact Sheets presents the work chronologically and features early pictures by Robert Capa (his famous Battle of Rio Segre and D-Day series are included), Herbert List and Elliott Erwitt, through to some of Magnum’s more recent signings such as Mark Power and Alec Soth.

As Parr has suggested, the book does feel like a eulogy to the disappearing era of film. The pen marks and stickers assigned to the contact sheets as indications of picture preferences only add to the physical nature of the process. But more than just a history of film photography, the book is a fascinating study of the blend of skill, intuition and luck involved in capturing what Henri Cartier-Bresson called the “decisive moment”. Analogue or digital, that will always be at the heart of a truly great picture. 

Magnum Contact Sheets by Kristen Lubben is published by Thames & Hudson; £95.00. CR readers can order a copy at the special price of £80, including UK mainland delivery, by calling T&H distributors Littlehampton Book Services on 01903 828503, quoting TH163. Offer is subject to availability. More details on the book at thamesandhudson.com

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