They are things of beauty: grids of small photos that show you exactly what’s on a roll of developed film. Intimate and revealing of the innerworkings of a photographer’s mind though they are, contact sheets were never regarded as an art form. Henri Cartier-Bresson believed they are a mess of erasures, and compared them to kitchen refuse left behind after he had prepared a great meal. But in recent years, disillusion with the click click click of the digital revolution grew — and with it nostalgia for the dark elegance of the contact sheets.
Last few years saw the publication of two monumental works: The Contact Sheet and Magnum Contact Sheets. But long before Magnum editors decided to raid their attics, William Klein — best known for his groundbreaking book New York, 1954-1955 — had the same idea. Starting in the 1980s, he asked his fellow photographers to talk about their contact sheets in a series of short vignettes made for the French television. (Klein also published a book Contacts, where he went back to his contact sheets and has re-versioned some of his original images by painting on them in bold, primary acrylics, reminiscent of a photographer’s standard chinagraph pencil.)
Those who narrated their works for Klein includes such illustrious names as Elliot Erwitt, Josef Koudelka, Sebastiao Salgado and even Mr. Cartier-Bresson himself. In all, thirty-six episodes were made, and most of them were collected in three DVDs (divided into Great Masters, Contemporary and Conceptual Photographers).
YouTube has most of the episodes; you can search for “Contacts + [name]” for any of these 36 photographers: William Klein; Raymond Depardon; Josef Koudelka; Marc Riboud; Leonard Freed; Edouard Boubat; Henri Cartier-Bresson; Don McCullin; Duane Michals; Mario Giacomelli; Eugene Richards; Nobuyoshi Araki; Thomas Ruff; Bernd and Hilla Becher; Alain Fleischer; John Hilliard; Georges Rousse; Roni Horn; Sebastiao Salgado; Robert Doisneau; Elliott Erwitt; Helmut Newton; Sarah Moon; Sophie Calle; Nan Goldin; Andreas Gursky; Lewis Baltz; Jean-Marc Bustamante; Jeff Wall; Hiroshi Sugimoto; Thomas Struth; Christian Boltanski; John Baldessari; Martin Parr; Wolfgang Tillmans; and Rineke Dijkstra.