|George Rodger, 1941|
As I enter the Magnum Contact Sheet exhibition at the Istanbul Modern I am giddy and excited. This show is a look at some of the most iconic (American made) images of our age, and their accompanying contact sheets, all taken by Magnum photographers. Magnum is an exclusive group of photographers, formed in the 1930s and still practicing today. As explained by Istanbul Modern, “A contact print is obtained by exposing an image or a set of images against a single sheet of photographic paper of the same size as the negative.” As a photographer for the last 20 years, I am intimately acquainted with the contact sheet. It's true (for me), as the show's wall text suggests, that the contact sheet is a sort of private notebook, sketchbook or diary. It can, “give clues as to the artist’s working process, (and) the way they approach the subject matter...” providing fascinating and often unexpected context. A contact sheet usually shows and entire roll of film, the images displayed essentially un-manipulated in printing. Typically, the world sees only the best or most useful frames from any given role, often, only one. The contact sheet presents unchosen frames, the images that are not shared or made public, for any number of reasons. Expertly shot and printed, these original photographic prints with their accompanying contact sheets provide a lot of fodder for visual investigation, and enjoyment for the eyes and mind. However, I take issue with much of the written context for the show, as well as, its overall backwards facing gaze. Provided text, which acts to further the agenda and myth of the photographer, runs the risk of overshadowing the actual contact sheets, which each tell a compelling story all their own. Conveniently, this text is mostly placed too low to be comfortably read by an adult of average height, making it easy to avoid. Likewise, much of the text provided by Istanbul Modern and Magnum suffers from an overt nostalgia for the “analogue age” and the somewhat ridiculous 'truth'/'reality' claims that have dogged photography almost since its inception. In short, spend your limited time at the exhibition looking and not reading.
As an academic and a classically trained photographer with a special interest in reproduction, portraiture, and the advent of the digital age, I am uniquely qualified to speak to these issues.Why is the proof sheet so interesting and important? How is it related to the “analogue age” of photography? Why does photography gaze over its shoulder to an age “gone by”?
These contact sheets offer a glimpse beyond the veil, like seeing the under painting or unedited manuscript of a great work. They expose the many choices presented to the photographer. Images in the show range from extremely intimate portraits in the bedrooms of everyday people, to portraits of famous public figures at events watched worldwide. Personally, I am inexplicably drawn to images of women photographed by women. There are a few beautiful examples here, including Susan Meiselas' work photographing circus performers in the American Mid-west from 1973-75. In her provided proof sheet one can see the many choices she was confronted with and what story she decided to tell. The images on the contact sheet are in turn salacious, fun, unnerving, creepy and exuberant. Meiselas' choice seems to highlight the youthful character of her subject and her possible naivete in contrast to the her current profession. In this choice, one gives the story its literal angle – and yet, once printed, it is swallowed whole, as the 'truth' or 'reality'. This editing process is but one layer in the many manipulations in the creation of a photographic image. Many people have the impression that photographs, especially 'analogue' photographs, are true – but these contact sheets will show you many truths, some contradictory. Here then, the tricky nature of photography is exposed. A shrewd editor (in the case of Magnum, usually the artist) shows you what to see, and thus, influence how you think about a subject. This is true for any artist and is used by editors in advertising and editorials to shape and contribute to a story or agenda.
The other major element of how one understands an image is its accompanying text. This show provides first-hand accounts from the artist along with the contact sheets and images. Provided text for the exhibition suggests, that one will be able to understand the “extent to which the selected snapshot reflects reality,” from viewing the contact sheet and reading the accompanying first-hand accounts. It hurts me that in 2015 I have to refute this ridiculous claim. Perhaps the quote is out of context. Just a few qualifiers can make it acceptable. How about, “the extent to which the selected snapshot reflects the reality of the artist.” Additional items provide one with further, connotative, context. First hand accounts, can only be read as such, the account or interpretation of one witness to an event. This one-person perspective is not a heavy burden to assign to something as substantial as “reality”. In fact, this additional context works to further define the specific view and individual viewpoint of the photographer. The artists personal perspective can be useful/interesting, but it is not to be confused with the empirical Truth of a thing.
Highlights in the show, including grainy black and white images by Robert Cappa, captured on D-day. Here, accompanying text is utterly unrelated to what we are actually looking at. The unfolding of a portrait session with iconic surrealist painter Salvador Dali, taken by Philippe Halsman in 1948 is a joy. This set of contact prints begs one important question, which is not addressed in the provided context, namely, was the rear painting in the image added later, in the darkroom? The clear, but somewhat less obvious highlight for me was Chris Steele Perkins's image, taken in 1997, which looks, itself, like a proof sheet from a malfunctioning camera. With black spaces between each window of light, he was shooting through a brick 'fence', which provided a series of seemingly disjointed scenes viewed through each “frame” all within a single larger frame. Here, again, is a clear example of the text working too hard and in the opposite direction of the provided image. Explaining the lens he used, that he needed to find something to stand on, and his opinion of the founder of the asylum he was photographing are unrelated to the story which the image and contact sheet aim to tell. In fact, it is hard to think of anything more disinteresting to share about this fascinating image, which is so compelling, in part, because of its obvious relationship to the surrounding contact sheets, the core focus of this exhibition.
Chris Steele Perkins's image, taken in 1997
Provided text suggests that the traditional contact sheet is now “historic,” but somewhat contradictorily there are a number of diverse contact or 'proof' sheets on display, offering a number of examples of its inevitable evolution. For instance, contact sheet by Thomas Hoepker, which depicts the tragedy of 9/11, is a set of slides which are set over a white piece of paper on a light box, and then photographed. In strict technical language this is not a contact sheet, as no contact has been made with light sensitive paper, and the slide images are shown at larger than their actual size. Moving further from tradition is the 'contact sheet' of Mikhael Subotzky taken in 2006. This sheet is displayed in the form of a screen shot and is a common modern day proofing method for digital captures and scanned film alike. As not many people realize, for photography shot on film, a proof sheet holds a special magic. In a traditional camera (one with a physical shutter and mirror) a photographer is made blind at the moment a frame is taken. The shutter closes, the mirror moves down and though the photographers eye is open, their view is obstructed in that fraction of a second it takes to expose the negative. The photographer anticipates and expects, but does not see or know what has been captured until the negatives have been developed and a contact sheet is made. The first look at a contact sheet can be crushing or exhilarating, or both. Sometimes, an image clearly distinguishes itself from the chaos of a contact sheet – leaping from the page – and for an artist, this is ecstasy. Other times, it hides, only being discovered after numerous investigations with a magnifying glass. This is magic. However, I believe that when presented to the public, who have no first-hand knowledge of, or perhaps no interest in the anticipatory process inherent in the more traditional process for the artist, this distinction becomes arbitrary and ungrounded.
So, is the contact sheet “a technique that is becoming increasingly historic”? (wall text) The short answer is, 'no'. In digital photography, the image not “blind”, it is (or can be) immediately seen and known to the artist. But the contact sheet – a collection/catalogue of small or easily readable reproductions of every image shot (frame taken) in a session, used primarily for editing, lives on in the digital age. Perhaps we should call that a “proof sheet” as no contact is made with a piece of light sensitive paper, but this is semantics. In the digital age, the format has changed, the anticipation, excitement and magic described above, are replaced with utility. Utility which makes room for new and different innovations. That the “contact sheet has been excluded from the photographic process (today), taking on the role of a historical document,” is fundamentally untrue, as evidenced in the show with the inclusion of Perkins, 2006 'screen shot' proof sheet. This is how many contact sheets are viewed for digital images and also now, for analog film which has been scanned.
|Mikhael Subotzky, 2006. Digital contact sheet|
So, has “This transition [to a digital contact sheet] brought a radical change in the way new generations of photojournalists think, shoot and choose their final images – often sacrificing the great gift of rediscovery in favor of rash removals” (provided text)? The answer is, 'maybe' or 'sometimes'. The above claim is overarching and points more to poor practice of a photographer in the editing process than anything else. Many photographers working through the analogue process will also suffer from rash removals and a failure to “rediscover” powerful or amazing images within their work. It's true that the switch to digital process may make it easier for a photographer to overshoot and create a more tedious editing process, which can in turn lead to the types of errors mentioned, but the medium and the process of the artist, though linked, are not exclusively dependent.
Like many photography exhibitions today, this exhibit focuses on the (or a) historic (portion of the) process of photography and indeed, likens its evolution to a 'death' by use of the term “epitaph”. However, the exhibition itself seems to contradict this, as laid out above. Many photographers, likely including some of the ones whose work is on display in this exhibition, are still working in this manner and currently making traditional contact sheets (and maybe digital ones too!). Often, new technologies, create a backlash which encourages and even resurrects traditional processes, as has been the case with photography. Consider the book by Magnum Contact Sheets and the accompanying show, which this is but one specific installation, have been on display since at least 2011. This 'epitaph' is not just premature, it is ongoing. Freud suggests that the the selfish, persistent internalization of a loss identifies the action as melancholia and not mourning. I argue that photography licks this wound to the point of injury. Melancholia is a static state of ongoing injury and it is prohibitive of forward movement. With constant attention, the cut will never close.
|Dali by Philippe Halsman, 1948|
The criticisms which I have laid out are not directed at the artistic content of the show, which is very impressive. Rather the provided framework. This troublesome frame includes a homogenous make-up of artists - only 6 women and 3 non-European/American artists in a field of 57 - and the insistence of nostalgia in the assessment of work which it arbitrarily defines as “analogue.” This framework is decidedly not modern and contributes to common misconceptions and myths surrounding photography, as well as, closing the door to more contemporary discussion about the medium.
|Mikhael Subotzky, 2006 with hilariously low wall text|
1. Do we see exhibitions in Modern museums which lament the death of marble sculpture in favor of 3D printing? No, thank god. Why does this teary nostalgia seem to disproportionally effect photography? I will address this another day...
2. Why are "photography" exhibitions so often located in the basement of Museums and institutions? Why is it still sometimes relegated to its own section when other mediums are typically intermingled throughout a museum?-all images photographed by me at the Magnum exhibit
You can find a shorter review of the work at yabangee.com