The Irreplaceable Magic of Contact Sheets

Any photographer who has worked with film can attest to what I mean by “magic”. Though the technology of digital photography has grown incredibly since its inception, one woefully missing piece of the process is the role of contact sheets.

In the time of film, the process of photographing was markedly different. After every shoot was the unavoidable wait for processed negatives and the accompanying joy of hunting through your contact sheets. I’d liken it to the ritual of your morning coffee with the paper, or any ritual you adhere to with care. Looking at a freshly developed contact sheet, with a red pen and an eye for editing, was a revered and enticing step in defining one’s vision.

For gallery-goers and museum folk, viewing artist’s finished photographs kept those initial steps a mystery. We formed our own opinions about the artist’s intent.

There are those rare moments to catch glimpses of that magic; the process and ideas of the man behind the curtain. Anyone who may have seen Robert Frank’s “The Americans” at SFMOMA in 2009 was invited to do just that.

Alongside Frank’s prints, the museum shared Frank’s contact sheets as well. Visitors could see multiples of each shot, understanding more about what Frank would include or exclude; understanding the parameters of his vision.

Check out this interesting NPR article on the 2009 show in San Francisco. Through the exhibition of Frank’s work, one of his subject’s recognized herself more than 54 years after Frank took her picture!

If contact sheets are still a mainstay in your film to digital workflow, you can always include them with your film processingin the lab.

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