This week I’ve learned so much about photography – in a way that really surprised me.
On the recommendation of a friend I purchased for myself a copy of Magnum Contact Sheets – a book (a real hard cover one) that may put you off a little due to its price and size – but which has taught me so much and that I highly recommend.
The concept of the book is simple. It contains 139 contact sheets selected by 69 Magnum photographers (or their estates). Alongside them you get the story of the photo that they’re highlighting and how they took it.
For those unfamiliar with the term ‘contact sheet’ – in short it is a direct print of a roll or sequence of negatives/film.
A contact sheet gives a photographer a quick overview of a roll of film – and then allows them to choose which of the images to develop (the closest thing in the digital era might be seeing all your images in a thumbnail grid in Lightroom).
In the case of this book it gives a fascinating glimpse at not only some great images but the shots that were taken in the lead up to and after those particular images were taken.
For example – this famous image of Mahammad Ali taken in 1966 by Thomas Hepker is well known to many.
It is a featured image in the book and you also get a glimpse at the contact sheet from which it was taken where you see a series of others shots also taken that day of Ali (including 2 other similar shots). Thomas Heopker tells the story of the shot and how at the time he thought he’d missed it as it was taken with so spontaneously.
The images included are arranged in chronological order and go right back to 1933 (the first is from Henri Cartier-Bresson) and span through until 2010 (the last photographer featured is Jim Goldberg). Some of the images are iconic well known images – while others I’d not seen before. Many of the images are photo journalistic in nature while some are portraits, street photography and other genres.
I’m learning so much from this book in two main ways:
- Firstly – the images themselves are amazing and I’m learning so much simply by watching how these masterful photographers have composed and shot their images. Spending time just looking at images like these will teach you a lot.
- Secondly – the contact images are fascinating. While many only show small 35mm sized shots you can learn a lot from them as you see the shots taken before or after the featured images. In some cases you see that the photographer shot a whole roll of very similar shots to achieve the perfect shot – while others got the shot with just 1-2 attempts. You also see them experimenting with composition, lighting and even see their missed shots (poorly exposed, out of focus etc) which gives me a little hope!
- Thirdly – the masterstroke of this book is the written descriptions by the photographers themselves (or by family members or the editor) describing the circumstances of the shoot. In some instances you pick up a little technical information but in most it is simply the story of how a shot came to be.
The book is large – some have complained in reviews I’ve seen that its weight and size have contributed to it being received in poor condition. Mine arrived from Amazon in perfect condition. Along with it’s size comes a recommended retail price of around $150 – although I got mine from Amazon at just over $90. Also note that the imagery in this book is on occasion graphic in nature with some nudity, confronting imagery of war, death and human suffering (although there is also humor, intrigue and some fascinating people featured too).
For the inspiration I’ve received and what I’ve learned in the many hours I’ve already spent with this book I feel I’ve got my moneys worth from it.
This is a book I have no doubt I will return to many times into the future. If you get a chance to have a look at it or to grab your own copy I highly recommend it.