The Year of Contact Sheets

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. 


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0 thoughts on “The Year of Contact Sheets

  1. Wow ; I have seen the series back in 2006, I think. It was in a French library, in Vietnam…! Great to see them appearing here and from what I recall it was a very interesting watch. In particular, the contact sheets selected are not from the most famous work of their authors. The “behind the scene” view and the marks of the photographer, showing the selected final images and reframing, is particularly interesting.

    It’s fantastic to see them in English and on YouTube in times when SOPA and PIPA are a threat to knowledge distribution.

  2. I love contact sheets. When I studied photography c2001-2003 I shot it all on Kodak Tmax and TriX, the contact sheets from my college days show my rapid growth over two years and gave me great insight into what the hell I was missing.

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