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Magnum . Contact Sheets

The Photographers' Choice

“Contact sheets are mostly a waste of money. Because it is a waste of money, I love them.” Leonard Freed

The decisive moment – in photography this determines everything. It is a synthesis between knowledge, sensitivity, technology, form, coincidence and pure intuition. When all these elements come together, such strong, unique images are created that they transcend the everyday and reveal something of the essence of life. However, what is the crucial factor that turns particular photographs into icons, engraining them into our collective memory? What happened shortly before, what followed subsequently? The contact sheet documents much more than the decisive moment. It provides an intimate insight into the working process of the act of photographing. The artist’s sequences of images follow the traces of movement through the space and also testify to photography’s goal of presenting reality in a way that is transparent.

At the same time, showing this raw material means absolutely breaking a taboo. This medium is not usually intended for publication, remaining in the protected space of the studio or photo workshop as an intermediate product. The contact sheet is first and foremost the photographer’s logbook, a decision-making aid for the selection and indexing of subsequent negative archives. Yet at the same time it is more than an artistic sketchbook; it shows the failed steps taken en route to the end product with all its errors, blunders, blind alleys – and lucky coincidences. Here, each twist and turn and every decision has been recorded. With this complete transparency and exposure of his working methods, the photographer makes himself vulnerable. He risks breaking the aura of the single image and disenchanting the creative process. Hence when looking at the contact sheet, the viewers become fascinated. On the one hand because they can participate directly in the process, looking over the artist’s shoulder, and on the other hand because they are doing something forbidden – like looking at someone else’s diary or into their wardrobe.

In the light of this, the rare insight the legendary photo agency Magnum provides with this exhibition is even bolder. It includes more than 100 contact sheets from seven decades by the most renowned photographers worldwide – ranging from Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, David „Chim“ Seymour, Werner Bischof, George Rodger and Elliott Erwitt, o Inge Morath, René Burri, Eve Arnold, Leonard Freed, Thomas Hoepker, Josef Koudelka und Gilles Peress, Martine Franck, Martin Parr, Jim Goldberg, Trent Parke, Jonas Bendiksen, Bruno Barbey, Paolo Pellegrin and Alec Soth.

The exhibition shows a chronological sequence of passionately committed reportage from the Second World War, street scenarios from the Prague Spring, icons such as Che Guevara, Mohammed Ali and Malcom X, the Balkan Wars and Bloody Sunday, hot spot Middle East, portraits of Japanese, Brazilian and British society, as well as many more historical events worldwide. By means of this unique combination of contact sheets, three different levels are visible in the exhibition: The respective political-sociological contents of the photographs themselves, the general history of photojournalism, as well as the history of the origins of each of the photos.

All of the analogue image formats are included in the compilation put together by Magnum – from the standard 35mm format to panorama shots or large format photos in black-and-white or colour. The comments and markings made by photographers or photo editors are often visible, showing the best motifs in the series or determining the precise detail of a photo.

Meanwhile, the contact sheet has become a relict of a technology that is now obsolete. The working processes and formats have fundamentally changed through digitalization. As a consequence of this dematerialization, the contact sheet is merely an archival phenomenon, yet at the same time it has come more and more into focus in terms of content, becoming an artefact itself. It symbolizes an autonomous genre with close links to film, narration and traditional photojournalism. Hence this exhibition by Magnum is a tribute to the analogue work and the authenticity of the medium of photography – as well as the swan song for a lost art form.

Sponsored by
Deutsche Börse Group

In cooperation with
Magnum Photos . Forte di bard | valle d'aosta . Schirmer/Mosel . MdF Berlin