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The contact sheet

In technical terms, the contact sheet is a print made from made from the negative film without blowing it up. The 36x24mm so-called Leica negative is usually cut into six strips, each having six shots and the 60x60mm medium format or 120 roll film is cut into four pieces, each having 3 shots. The positive image you get is suitable for seeing see what the photographs show in order to make the first rough selection or, for example, to mark the detail to be enlarged on the frame you want to use later. Therefore the contact sheet has a very important role in the editorial work and, not least, in the case of photo agencies.

The contact sheet is used by the photographer to select the right frame which will then be produced in the final print. The contact is a “rough” image “turning” the negative to the opposite tones. The final print and the copy which is prepared for printing may be already significantly different from the negative. It does not only mean the “edited photo”, the “surface” that will be printed on paper but also that during the laboratory work the tones can be influenced and modified within certain limits, the contrasts can be somewhat changed, boosted or attenuated.

The version that can be regarded as final – if we can say that in the case of photography – is created as a result of many small and similar decisions. In this process the photographer is not the only person who has a role to play, but the laboratory assistant, too and sometimes only the latter person does. There were always photographers, mostly reporters who almost never worked with the development of their negatives and with the printing of their photographs. It was done by the editorial offices and often there was not even time to agree with the photographer who was working somewhere on site.

The contact sheet is a major component of a working process, therefore its evaluation and the selection of the right frame is very important, either in case of a report or a longer photographic essay or the editing of an album. The choice does not always fall on the picture providing the most information; “composition” is more important sometimes which does not mean the arrangement but rather a kind of system of dark and light tones, being properly balanced. In many cases it will be decisive when photos are placed next to each other, in series or double pages. It can only be overwritten by the content of information: for example when an event is covered whose “documentation” has a special significance (for example if the victim is the photojournalist who took the picture).

At the same time, the contact sheet is always the index of the archives, helping us to find the right photographs and their negatives in order to make new prints.
The selection and the choice is always made on an up-to-date basis. At the same time, the contact sheet is not only meant for the present. It may get a completely different significance in a historical retrospection, even if the time distance is not too long, since we can follow the work of a photographer through several decades. In this case its special feature is that it can show the trends and it becomes visible how the photographer is approaching the composition of an image or how he or she is backing away from it; when and under what circumstances does he or she arrive to the right picture (to the “decisive moment”) that will be outstanding among the other ones. In some cases it can be reconstructed on the basis of the contact sheets how the picture is shaped that the photographer wants to take or rather what he or she is looking for.

The contact sheets may tell us several things more than what most of the photographers would want to let us know, so they do not like to show them to the public. All of them are aware that they have to take a lot of shots to have one which is outstanding among the average ones. At the same time, quantity is also a question of habits. Some people try to use less and less raw material, they reconsider each shot, while others do not only change their point of view or the section of the picture, but the settings, too. Some photographers do the selection already “in advance”, but others prefer to make a selection afterwards.

The contact sheets frequently witness how the photographer is thinking during the selection process and how he or she picks a frame among the other ones. Often those photos prove to be the strongest ones which are technically corrupted or they break certain conventions and rules of good photographs in the traditional sense. The effects of this “violation of the frontiers” and imperfections can make the image much more expressive.

The photographer has a completely different attitude to his or her contact sheet than the editor. The impact of events he or she experienced, the impressions that raise the value of some pictures may be still important to him or her. However, the editor must only focus on the finished material that he or she has to choose from. It is the composition as a whole which is important for the editor, the individual gestures and movements only have a significance in function of the composition as a whole. The editor is thinking in terms of double pages or photo pairs, full reports and even in the volume of whole books and not in individual photos. The work of the editor is appreciated by his or her position as an outsider and his or her “fresh eyes”.

The timeliness and the significance of the exhibition presenting the contact sheets of photographers are partly given by the fact that it turns the attention of the layman to the these aspects, allowing to have an insight to the mysteries of laboratories and revealing the first important steps in the process of picture editing. On the other hand we can get acquainted with an instrument which was indispensable for many decades, but it has been pushed to the background because of the technological changes in recent decades, the introduction of digital cameras and picture editing and they are used less and less even by those photographers who still take pictures on negative film.

The original format of the contact sheet makes no sense any more as a result of the new digital technical solutions. Today we do not need to print the “preview” of the multitude of digital pictures. Many photographers work with these instruments, especially those who belong to the younger generations, who digitalize their pictures taken on film with an analog camera and they do the selection and the editing on the computer monitor. Obviously everything that was possible at the laboratories earlier – the “tricks” that the laboratory assistants were the appreciated masters of – are also available, but today these changes are done by computer software which also provide new possibilities besides the traditional “interventions”. The real change is not this one but rather in the way of keeping the archives. The “view” that contact sheets offered earlier is not available for digitally arranged and stored pictures any more. There is no trace left of the series of principal decisions which take us closer and closer to the frame selected for printing and blowing up.

The contact sheet is an instrument which was indispensable at a certain technical level of photography in a certain period. It helps us to have an insight to the processes and professional secrets that were rather hidden and concealed from the public. Only the final version could exist for the observer who “consumed” photographs. Everything else was a private affair of the editor and the photographer. However, they may provide interesting information subsequently, complementing our knowledge and showing the process where both the editor and the photographer often had to make difficult decisions. We can also witness how the selected photographs helped to develop a “narrative” which defined their meaning for a long time and marked the frame of the possible interpretation of the recorded event, situation or story.

(written by: Gábor Pfisztner)