Many years ago, when I was having trouble finding my path as a photographer, I asked my friend, the Canadian photographer John Max, for some guidance.
“Show me your contact sheets,” he said.
“You don’t want to see my prints?” I asked.
“Nope, just your contact sheets.”
For the next five years, I would meet with John regularly to analyze my contact sheets. He would ask me what I was looking at, what I was thinking of, why I went down one street as opposed to another, why I shot from one angle as opposed to another, what I was feeling at a particular moment.
He wanted to know what I did just before shooting picture X. He wanted to know why I stopped shooting right after making picture Y.
“Why didn’t you move behind him?” he would ask.
“Did you try a lower angle?”
“Why did you stop there? Shouldn’t you have gone in closer?”
“Why don’t you try going back there on another day?”
The questions were endless.
Contact Sheet Nostalgia
I learned a lot from John over the years — but perhaps above all else, he left me with was an enduring love of contact sheets.
It’s almost a fetish for me.
Sometimes when I go to an exhibit, I’ll see a blown-up contact sheet on the wall showing a photographer’s 36 frames, one of them with a red grease pencil circle around it. That frame is always the first thing I look at.
Then I look at all the other images surrounding it. I try to figure out why the photographer chose that particular frame over the rest.
What appeals to me is the same thing that interested John for so many years. A contact sheet is the beginning of the editing process.
It tells me what the best image in a series is. But more importantly, I can look at a particular group or sequence and learn how to execute it better the next time — e.g., keep shooting, change angles, interact with the subject, adjust exposure. These things are not always evident when shooting.
Choosing Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
The contact sheet is almost dead today — replaced by Adobe Lightroom and similar programs. Although these applications clearly have their advantages in storage simplicity, classification of images, finding images, quality of proofs, etc., they also have their shortcomings.
I must substitute a 24″ monitor for a magnifying glass and a grease pencil.
I can no longer hold an 8×10 in my hand and look at the whole sequence together.
And I lose that moment of peering through a glass, having that special frame pop up in front of me — and saying, “Wow.”
Recently, a friend suggested taking my photographs “out of the computer.“ I am presently working on a new way to do this that requires printing small paper proofs and pinning them up on the wall.
This allows me to move them about, take those that no longer interest me down and put new ones up — just like I used to do.
It’s not the same as holding a contact sheet in one hand and a magnifying glass in the other, but I like it. Sometimes taking two steps forward — and then one step back — is not such a bad thing after all.