Magnum Contact Sheets

outside Thye London College of Communication

The alarm went off at 4.30 a.m. as I needed to leave the house by 5 to catch a train before 5.30; there was then the wait at another station for the connecting train. Before this journey started, I could not help but wonder what it was that took me to London for the day! I wanted to not just further my knowledge of photography rather try and refine my understanding of the medium. There were a number of eminent people i the world of UK photography due to speak so there was the chance to hear what people are saying now rather than what they said sometime ago as tends to be the case with much published criticism.


We were told by Sophie Wright, the cultural director of Magnum photos, that the symposium was the alternative to a major exhibition that might have been rather text heavy and for which no funding was available.

The first discussion is a history and overview of the book Magnum Contact Sheets and the first of three speakers is the Magnum photographer Peter Marlow; he joined the agency on the recommendation of Philip Jones-Griffiths. He considers the contact sheet as a vital part of the working process of a photographer and very helpful in seeing the way a photographer works. There is the view that showing one’s contact sheets is a bit like showing one’s dirty linen to the public and yet, as Geoff Dyer points out, the contact sheet is like the 90% of the iceberg. Early in his career, Marlow learnt a lot by editing the work of George Rodger which was obviously done by looking at his contact sheets.

Has the Contact Sheet gone? Is it a past practice that has no place in today’s world. There are of course still some film users at work! I consider the contact sheet, as with other analogue practices, to have being carried into the digital medium. Software exists to allow us to view images on screen in a similar way; in Lightroom for instance, there is a Contact Sheet template in the Print module. However, printing contact sheets may no longer be practical.

So what is that makes one choose a particular image over others? Context, the way an image relates to the world, is important here; Marlow shows a photograph of Maggie Thatcher that me made during the famous “this lady is not for turning” speech. The choice of the actual image from a contact sheet of some 42 images, all of Maggie Thatcher giving this speech, was chosen using particular considerations notably showing the import of her stature that seemed to corraborate with the speech’s meaning.

(from the left) Stuart Smith, Peter Marlow, Andrew Sanigar.

The next speaker was Stuart Smith who worked on the design of the book. He finds working with photographers not an easy task as they tend to be very particular; publishers have a more definite approach. Design can be overdone – simplicity is important.

In this book, photographers were asked to write a text which turned out to be more difficult than actually choosing the photographs.

The book does not only contain contact sheets, it also includes artifacts such as sketches of photographs.

Editing is one of the hardest things for a photographer to do! Yes? No? Maybe!

Once a photograph has been selected then there is a tendency to keep to that photograph although another selection process might well turn up a different selection.

Photographs can be compromised when they are reproduced such as when cropping to fit on a particular page; for instance, a square composition becomes a vertical one.

One can get an idea of a photographer from some of the marks made on or around a contact sheet.

What makes one image better than another?

Designing the jacket of a book involves showing the publisher various ideas; old ideas are saved for later reference. The cover of Magnum Contact Sheets went through various stages involving at one time photographs on the front. The end result is minimalist making the book look like a box of printed sheets.

Sophie Wright pointed out that some photographers chuck out their unselected images and so were unable to contribute to this book. The book itself gives many insights into the way photographers work.

Selecting images can take time .. one needs to leave the selection awhile and then go back to it. Editing is also necessary while one is shooting or soon after otherwise one gets an unenjoyable back log of images to search through. For the photographer, there is no longer any hanging out at the end of the day in the bar as metadata needs to be added.

The next talk is by David Campany and called “The One, The Many, The One : Photography and Editing

David Campany - "The One, The Many, The One"

There is an interesting quote from Walter Benjamin (1931) that Sanders (German early twentieth century photographer) is not so much a picture book but more a training manual. I remember this because someone recently referred to some photos I had done as a bit like a training manual for navigating around a supermarket which made me reflect on their practical nature as photographs of something rather than about it.

Campany talks about the legendary French photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose photographs have become iconic. What to say of his contact sheets? H.C-B tended to leave his editing to others being more interested in what was happening inside the frame at the time the images were made; his editors were forbidden from cropping his images! H.C-B drew much inspiration from artists.

Susan Mieselas is another magnum photographer who did not even get the chance to edit her images as it was done on film and sent back to the States for processing and later printing.

It has been said that the photographer is a proletarian in the process and may become a pawn in the game if they do not manage to exercise some degree of editorial input. However, photographers are not very good at editing (maybe because they have invested so much in making a picture!?) Magnum Photo agency was set up to give photographers more editorial control.

Campany has coined a new term, “tradigital”; digital cameras still use analog devices.

The gap between photographs is important; part of the narrative Photographs tend to work in groups and there is a need to be wary of the singular image, of a photograph becoming iconic.

Jeff Wall is an example of a photographer who does work towards the singular image. Is he really more of an artist? No, he’s a photographer!

Some photographs make you think – may even hurt the brain!!

William Klein is an example of a photographer whose work peaked in the 1960’s yet is now being shown a lot; has an upcoming exhibition at the Tate Modern …

Contemporary photography has become somewhat elitist, arrogant.

Photography has become serial; the pressures of the archive. Mostly photography is concerned with a succession of images rather then one although this may not be the case i advertising.

A lot of photographerrs have been left out of the standard photographic canon of history such as those from Asia and South America.

What exactly is a Photo-Essay? There is not really a default definition, a fixed editorial idea, and yet a standardised form has tended to dominate photography. Magazine editors think differently.

A website to check out …

However, it seems Campany has not checked out this website recently since although it is still there, it is no longer really active. There is however a book …

Another book mentioned is Beaumont Newhall’s The History of Photography …

There is some mention of DSLR video. Some cameras can produce video images good enough for still presentation; the interpenetration of video and still photography is not a new phenomenon.

The next talk is another group discussion about “The Importance of the Archive: photography and posterity” and involves Hilary Roberts (photographic curator at The Imperial War Museum, Antony Penrose director of the Lee Millar archive, Nick Galvin a freelance archivist and is chaired by Sophie Wright cultural director of Magnum Photos.

Hilary Roberts (photographic curator at The Imperial War Museum, Antony Penrose director of the Lee Millar archive, Nick Galvin a freelance archivist and is chaired by Sophie Wright cultural director of Magnum Photos

i listened to this talk but did not make many notes except for the discussion of the Magnum Archive in which every image is meant to have a long number that is unique to it. The magnum archive is really an amalgam of archives, about 15,000 in fact, and there are an estimated 11 million images.

Antony Penrose related how Conde Nast tried to claim ownership of The Lee Millar Archive but this was not upheld in the courts.

There is not much to eat at The London College of Communication so I go across the road to find something in a large cafeteria there.

cafe at the Elephant and Castle

leaves on the subway entrance outside The London College of Communication

The first talk of the afternoon is perhaps the best of the day since it is by David Hurn, a Magnum photographer and teacher who set up documentary studies at The University of Gwent in Newport. He says that we have a lot to learn from contact sheets and looking at those of accomplished photographers is one way we can progress as photographers and keep learning. Photographers can get better! (David Hurn has sold me the book though this is not his intention, he passionately cares about photography).

David Hurn photographer

David Hurn has been a professional photographer since 1955 but has kept up with photographic developments; one has to!

In the mid 1960’s, there were no real photographic galleries in the UK and not a museum that collected photographs as art objects (what about the V+A?) and no Arts Council grants for photographers.However, every week-end there were lots of pages of photographs appearing in newspapers. Photographers including many well known ones were not well paid as a rule which is one reason so many found refuge in David Hurn’s flat in London.

Photographic education hardly went beyond the manual!

1963 – one photographic M.A. in the U.S.
1967 – 13 photographic M.A. in the U.S.
nowadays there are about 500 photographic M.A. in the U.S.

1963 – MOMA had a photographic print collection based entirely on prints from Beaumont Newhall

1955 – no such thing as an art photographer

there were standard professional lines including portraiture,pornography,science record,landscape,weddings,photo-journalism – professional photo-artists came later!

David Hurn has in his house a photographic print of a man wrapped up in bandages by Philip Jones-Grifiths; quite often, this print reduces people to tears – surely this reveals that photography can be art!

There are different ways through which the photographer can learn, one being trial and error. Competitions do help one to excel while chatting with friends is another way.

“Buying a good pair of shoes!” is another piece of advice David Hurn has to offer. One often has to walk a lot as a photographer.

The contact sheet can help to prove a photograph’s authenticity.

Doing an MA can be a distraction; the ability to produce work is what matters.

David Hurn claims to have the largest photographic archive of Wales in the world.

For him, “the world is interesting – I want to record it and show it to you!”

He mentions Koudelka’s book “Gypsies”

To do something well, one needs to do it a lot. Take a lot of photos and look at a lot of photos.

Diane Arbus never had a solo exhibition while alive.

Talk to other photographers about the way they work.

DH has loved his life in photography … bliss is the word he uses to describe it. Enabled him to travel to places he wanted to visit and meet people he would otherwise never have met.

One needs 5 seconds to evaluate/consider an image!

The next talk is a discussion “A lost generation: the effects of the disappearance of contact sheets and the editorial market.”

(from left to right) Sean O'Hagan (Guardian),Colin Jacobson, Francis Hodgson,David Hurn (Magnum photographer),Chris Steele-Perkins (Magnum photographer)

The Contact Sheet is a lost item, a former working practice; reading them is a skill!

CJ – editing is messy – takes place too fast in the hurly-burly of working life. Editing works down from many to one.

The photographer can only go so far; after that, up to those who do the lay-out, art directors etc

Chris S-P – one can do own edit and do not have to show contact sheets; contact sheets are like a photographer’s underpants.

FH – photographers now selling themselves as a brand rather than just their photographs.

DH – some colleges lead their photographers to believe they can make a living doing books – books are useful as a marketing device but not for real income. Prints make even less!

S O’H – photography has become much more market driven – way of working still a craft skill.

CJ – need to also shoot in vertical format; magazines need these kind of images.
What is photographic story-telling today? A series of photographs linked by text rather than a group of good photographs; text tends to dominate photos.
A group of pessimistic old men discussing photography?

FH – photography is a major form of communication yet tends to be considered marginal. Cultural nervousness about photography.

DH – more staged directed photography rather than the world as it is

Chris S-P – iPhone makes work that much easier and possible; one does not stand out as a photographer. Chris tends to keep all his RAW images rather than throw away those that are no good.

DH – the iPhone has revolutionised photography along with the internet; the iPhone can go almost anywhere incognito!
“Old fogeys like me could not care a bugger!” says DH of new technology.

FH – there is a digital soup of culture; the medium does not matter.
Where is the contact sheet today in slid form!?

CJ – where are the stories today among the mass of images? What has replaced the photo-story?

S O’H – can newspapers compete with the internet’s messaging of news?

FH – newspapers can give a more in-depth analysis but often this comes too late!?!

Mitch Epstein is successful; Jim Goldberg has also responded to present day market needs

Chris S-P – basic 6 image photo for magazine seems dead!

FH – great waste of good imagery today.
The convictions over Sunday Bloody Sunday relied on the contact sheets of Giles Peress

CJ – BBC and CNN ready to use unauthorised, unverified images about an unreported event

FH – can a photographer still get his story out there?

DH – possibility of selling ebooks! via Kindle for instance. Could generate income.
Motivation of photographer to disseminate – also joy of making good photographs
Editor’s view – crop them down and blow them up!
Might Magnum have sold magnum Contact Sheets as an ebook?

Commissioned work superceeded by the internet revolution rather than in-depth coverage.

Print journalism has lost out to internet journalism

extraordinary photographic work not being taken by the mainstream

no great conclusions about what is happening today

The final discussion is concerned with “the contact sheet in art photography”

Simon Baker (Tate), David Campany, Zelda Cheatle and Martin Barnes (V+A)

The “Dismissive Moment” when one has to reject photographs in view of others

Examining the contact sheets of a photographer can help when exhibiting that photographer’s work

Contact sheets allow physical, visceral contact

The patron saint of photography is Saint Veronica !!?

Simon Baker

diaristic mode of the Contact Sheet

early iraqi photobooks suggest that photography is anything you can do with the medium

the contact sheet can be a work of art in itself (John Hilliard)

is the magnum Contact Sheets book an elegy to a lost age?

Martine Franck is one photographer who did not wish to share her contact sheets considering them too private; she did however since it was part of a general project.

The V+A has a new gallery; not THE chronology of photographic history but a slightly different one that will be changed from time to time.

Photography can still help to show people the world that exists about them

Tate Britain has a Don Mac Cullin room next to that of Turner
Tate Modern is showing photographs in their restaurant

David Campany – pleased that Magnum Contact Sheets is a book and not an exhibition
A contact sheet can give the experience of being there

What replaces the contact sheet? Likely to be onscreen rather than a physical object

The internet is the museum of the invisible; it can be policed but not controlled.

Its’ been an interesting day with quite a lot of pragmatic consideration of the contact sheet and the photographic medium as a whole …

Anna Gormley - selling copies of the Magnum Contact Sheets book

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