Book review: Magnum Contact Sheets

  • Book title: Magnum Contact Sheets
  • Author: Various authors (edited by Kristen Lubben)
  • Page count: 524
  • Publishing year: 2020
  • Publisher: Thames & Hudson
  • ISBN: 978-0-500-29291-4

While browsing the internet I found an article from 2019, written by Simon King, on the value of sharing your contact sheets. In it he recommended a book called Magnum Contact Sheets for those who are interested in photography in general and the works of The Greats in particular. As I have such an interest and am constantly trying to learn more I decided to order the book. For those who don’t know, Magnum Photo is a photography cooperative founded by Robert Capa, David “Chim” Seymour, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger, William Vandivert, Rita Vandivert and Maria Eisner. It has counted some of the best photographers among its members and has during its years garnered a legendary reputation. So being able to study these peoples contact sheets and see how they made some of their photographs would be a really good learning opportunity.

About a week later the book arrives and it’s much bigger than I expected, measuring 29.4×24×4cm and weighing in at 2.8 kg. As the title suggests it contains the contact sheets from 69 of Magnums photographers. The book starts of with an introduction about how contact sheets were used in the cooperative and then continues on to the sheets. They are divided into seven chapters, each covering roughly a decade (Ex. Chapter 2 covers the years 1950-1959) except for Chapter 1 which covers roughly two decades (1930-1949). Every sheet is accompanied by a text from the photographer, or their estate, and the photograph(s) that are marked on the contact sheet. The book then finishes of with some notes, acknowledgments and an index.

I like this book. Even though I have studied every contact sheet and image, it will take some time to digest what I have read. I feel that I will have to return to the book multiple times before every lesson is learned from it. One thing you notice quite rapidly is that it usually takes the photographer multiple attempts get a good photograph. I know from reading on the internet and from experience that most of the images on a roll will not turn out great and that this is so for most photographers. Seeing the contact sheets in this book really confirms this and shows me that even The Greats are affected by this. The knowledge of this brings me some comfort in my abilities.

As I said, I like this book and have nothing bad to say about its contents. There is one thing though that I have to mention, and it could be that only my copy is affected, and it’s that there seems to be a sequencing error in Chapter 5 (1980-1989) on pages 338, 342, 346 and 350. The contact sheet, text and photograph shot by Stuart Franklin of the Tiananmen Square Massacre has been replaced by the contact sheet, text and image shot by Thomas Dwordzak of Chechen fighters. There is still some slides and two images of the massacre on pages 340 and 341. Similarly, the contact sheet and text for Josef Koudelka’s Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Gueorgui Pinkhassov’s Earthquake in Armenia has been replaced by Elliot Erwitt’s Bulldog and Trent Park’s The Seventh Wave respectively. The images, contact sheet and text from Dwordzak, Erwitt and Park appear again in their right place in the books last chapter (2000-2010.) I am bit disappointed that I couldn’t see the contact sheet for Stuarts famous Tank Man image.

Even though it has a sequencing error I am glad that I bought it. It is really great for an outsider like me to be able to study some of Magnums contact sheets and reap the lessons from them. I can wholeheartedly recommend the book for anyone interested in photography and especially for those that are into street, documentary and photojournalism.

By Skoge Farman

I am a street photographer based north of Stockholm.

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