Book review: Magnum Contact Sheets

Like most photographers, I do like a good fine art book of images – especially if the content is first rate. Books can be a source of inspiration and ideas, as well as a good reality check to see what’s out there in the world of photography. This will be the first in a longer term series of book reviews, in which I’ll highlight anything I find particularly interesting, and how it’s relevant to photography or developing your skills further. The minimum benchmark is of course that I must find the book worthwhile enough to purchase, but I’ll reserve the right to call out work so singularly execrable that I would be doing a disservice to the buying public if I didn’t warn them away from it.

First off: it’s a Magnum anthology, which means there aren’t going to be any bad images in here. Even the ones that are perhaps compositionally less strong are pretty darn impressive, more so when you read the context and understand the back story.

The book is also full of interesting little tidbits: I didn’t know that most of Robert Capa’s negatives from the Normandy invasion were actually spoiled by the developer – they were overcooked in the drying cupboard and melted – the few that were salvageable were the ones where the emulsion had slipped from the celluloid, but not completely come off; this is why all of the series seem to have some motion blur in them. I thought it was either due to the intensity of the moment, or the technical limitations imposed by cameras and films of the day. Interestingly, I think one could argue that the images are just as powerful despite being technically imperfect; the additional dynamic added adds a real sense of urgency, panic and chaos – which is precisely what war is.

However, the real kicker here is that the images presented aren’t just the single ‘selected’ iconic ones, but also the ones before and after – i.e. a contact sheet of that entire roll of film. For me, this was mind blowing: I have long been under the impression that the photography greats just take one, or at most two, shots and then nail the image; they don’t. They work the scene with at least one, sometimes more, rolls of film before they get what they need. It’s an incremental process. You can actually visualize the compositional development process in the mind of the photographer from shot to shot, especially if the subject is relatively static and predictable so they have the opportunity to try different things and execute incremental refinements.

What I’d take away from this – other than the powerful images and great (but not excellent) printing is that although the great photographers no doubt have huge innate talent – you can see that already from the first shot in the series, usually – but they also have the determination and patience to keep shooting until they know they’ve nailed it. That, combined with the selection process afterwards, is what makes all the difference between being perceived as a mediocre to average photographer, or an incredible one. It’s not that famous photographers don’t take crappy shots; we usually don’t get to see them.

There’s no referral program for people who live in Malaysia, so go ahead and buy it from your favorite retailer. Product images from Amazon. MT