Magnum Contact Sheets @ICP

JTF (just the facts): A group show consisting of the work of 22 photographers, framed in black or enlarged and pinned directly to the wall, and hung against dark grey walls in a single room on the lower level of the museum. Many of the vintage contact sheets are shown in a large glass case in the center of the room, and copies of the recent book are arrayed on a bench along one wall. The show was curated by Kristen Lubben. A monograph of the larger collection was published in 2011 by Thames & Hudson (here); a special version with a limited edition print is also available (here). Since photography is unfortunately not allowed in the ICP galleries, the images for this show come via the ICP website. (Contact sheets from Rene Burri, Jonas Bendicksen and Philippe Halsman, top to bottom, respectively.)

The following photographers are included in the show, with the date of images in the contact sheet(s) in parentheses. Each photographer is represented by one sheet (some vintage, some modern) unless otherwise noted:

Eve Arnold (1959)

Jonas Bendicksen (2000)

Rene Burri (1963, plus 2 smaller contact sheets)

Cornell Capa (1961)

Robert Capa (1944, plus 1 individual print)

Chien-Chi Chang (2008)

Elliott Erwitt (1953)

Martine Franck (1976)

Leonard Freed (1978)

Bruce Gilden (1984)

Burt Glinn (1957)

Jim Goldberg (1989)

Philippe Halsman (1948)

Thomas Hoepker (1966)

Josef Koudelka (1968)

Susan Meiselas (1975, plus 1 smaller contact sheet)

Inge Morath (1957)

Trent Parke (2000)

Martin Parr (1985)

Marc Riboud (1953)

George Rodger (1940)

Alex Webb (1978)

Comments/Context: Right up front, I should confess that I am a lover of contact sheets. Seeing an entire roll of film displayed frame by frame is for me the ultimate expression of the photographic process, and I never seem to tire of poring over misfires and accidents on the way to the triumphant finish. The unaltered contact sheet represents (in a convenient short hand) the way the photographer’s brain works, how he or she solves visual problems, and how chance and experimentation play a part in the picture making.

At a detailed level, this show offers the ability to trail along behind the creation of some of photography’s most iconic images: Robert Capa comes ashore at Normandy, Marc Riboud watches a painter high atop the Eiffel Tower, Rene Burri circles seemingly unnoticed around Che Guevara, and Josef Koudelka stands in the streets of revolutionary Prague. I was fascinated by the handful of images Martin Parr made of his famous New Brighton sunbather under the crusty treads of an excavator. He discovered the scene, moved around cautiously looking for the right compositional angle, and then was rewarded with the arrival of a small girl and the exact timing of a passerby in the background. It all happens in a handful of pictures, but it’s a tight example of the calculating, iterative, construction of a terrific photograph.

For working photographers, this show should be on the required syllabus, since it proves that there is no one right way to work; below the specifics of the well-known images, the exhibit works on a more abstract level, exploring the nature of seeing, in-camera editing,and the passing of time. Some masters shoot only a frame or two when presented with a visual idea, and then move on rather quickly. Others snap frame after frame of variants on the same image, fine tuning angles and relationships until the magic happens. Still others set up a picture’s underlying architecture and then wait for something unexpected to happen. I was just as interested in how these individual photographers worked, as in the eventual alchemy that produced a particular winner. I thoroughly enjoyed watching Susan Meiselas playing with adjacent/secondary cropped nude bodies in the contact sheet from her Carnival Strippers project, working to get just the right balance in the overall frame.

The accompanying catalogue is a wrist-breaking doorstop, but seems to offer hours of tracking and vicarious stalking of your most admired photographers. In our futuristic digital age, these contact sheets are now relics from a bygone era, but they still provide both an unmatched record of pathways of the artist’s mind and a valuable teaching tool. In the end, it’s just as interesting to see the ones that didn’t work, on the way to finding the one that eventually did.

Collector’s POV: Contact sheets like these are rarely if ever found in the secondary markets, since they tend to be archived with the artist’s negatives and papers rather than released as finished works. As such, there is no straightforward way to determine a current market value for these kinds of prints, either vintage or modern. Perhaps the safest answer here is “priceless”?

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Read more about: Jonas Bendiksen, Josef Koudelka, Marc Riboud, Martin Parr, Philippe Halsman, René Burri, Robert Capa, Susan Meiselas, International Center of Photography, Thames & Hudson

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