Magnum Contact Sheets – Commissioning #2

For the second part of our new Life Cycle of a Book series, Andrew Sanigar looks back at the development of our new Autumn title Magnum Contact Sheets. Read the first part here.

© Susan Meiselas
© Susan Meiselas

To begin the process of gathering material for the book, a brief was issued which invited all the photographers to participate and for them to select three contact sheets. What was termed a ‘contact sheet’ could be black and white or colour and in the form of sheets printed from negatives or developed transparencies arranged as if on a lightbox – the only unshakeable rule was ‘no digital’ – and to send them in to Magnum. I had reckoned that not all of the photographers would want to appear in the book – either their working method or media didn’t suit it or they didn’t want their secrets revealed or their dirty linen aired in public, but in the end, all bar two of the members (and you’ll have to buy the book to spot who is missing) took part.

Fast-forward to November 2009, and Sophie, Martin, Kristen and I met in Paris, at the Magnum offices during Paris Photo, to review what had been sent in. It was clear at this stage how the photographers had bought into the idea and were fully behind the project. The range of work was exceptional. We had to edit down, but how? If we included everything, the book would have been impossible to produce in one volume and incredibly expensive to produce. At that meeting, some contact sheets were cut – and there were tough choices – and, following our discussing and agreeing it, Martin and Sophie went back to the photographers and requested alternatives for some.

© Thomas Hoepker/Magnum Photos
USA. Brooklyn, New York. September 11, 2001. © Thomas Hoepker/Magnum Photos

What became apparent at that stage was that the more we looked and the more we saw, the greater the question mark grew over the veracity of some contact sheets as ‘true’ or intact documents. One example is the contact sheets by Robert Capa of his photographs taken at the Battle of Rio Segre during the Spanish Civil War – he cut up his contact sheet and mounted the edited frames into a notebook, therefore limiting and guiding what a picture editor would then see. Only upon the rediscovery of the negatives in ‘The Mexican Suitcase‘ their restoration and the creation of a new contact sheet was that made clear to us now. At the other end of the scale, we have Gilles Peress‘ contact sheets of the photographs he took in Derry on 30 January 1972 – Bloody Sunday – which were used as key evidence in the official enquiries – the contact sheet as an intact sequence of frames showing the protestors that day were unarmed.


USA. Brooklyn, New York. September 11, 2001. Young people relax during their lunch break along the East River while a huge plume of smoke rises from Lower Manhattan after the attack on the World Trade Center. © Thomas Hoepker/Magnum Photos

Another example of what was revealed during the development of the book relates to René Burri‘s contact sheet of Ché Guevara. The ‘star’ image in that sheet was made famous decades after the assignment through its use on a Swiss poster, but look closely at the sheet and what seems at first glance to be a sheet from a single sequence is, in fact, a composite of different rolls from different cameras using different lenses.

© René Burri/Magnum Photos
Havana. Ministry of Industry. Ernesto GUEVARA (Che), Argentinian politician, Minister of industry (1961-1965) during an exclusive interview in his office. © René Burri/Magnum Photos

When Sophie Wright interviewed René for his text in the book (each contact sheet is accompanied with a text by the photographer or a representative of their estate), he revealed why this was the case: each week at the Magnum offices in Paris, Henri Cartier-Bresson would review the contact sheets newly printed from what each of the photographers had returned from assignments with. By René’s account this was a (not unsurprisingly) daunting experience, with Cartier-Bresson, turning the contact sheet slowly, looking at it upside down, studying the composition and scrutinizing the content, relentlessly critiquing them. As a consequence, René wanted to make sure that he didn’t miss a shot. He went on the assignment with three cameras, each with loaded with film, each with a prime lens of different focal length, and swapped between the cameras, strung around his body, like the cinematic cliché of what a ‘photojournalist’ looks like. In the text for his other contact sheet in the book (The Ministry of Health, Rio de Janeiro in 1960) René revealed that they typically edited his negatives by loading them into the carousel of a projector and viewing them on a wall. They never made a contact sheet for that purpose, only for later distribution and editing and, much later, for archive purposes.

René Burri - Che Guevara
Havana. Ministry of Industry. Ernesto GUEVARA (Che), Argentinian politician, Minister of industry (1961-1965) during an exclusive interview in his office. © René Burri/Magnum Photos

By the following June, we had design concepts in place, thanks to Stuart Smith and Victoria Forrest at Smith, which were approved by the team and from which the layout of the final book was developed and refined. We also had, bar for a few latecomers, the contact sheets decided upon and ready. Kristen and Sophie then branched out from those sheets to start to bring in the tearsheets, notebooks, press passes and other material that add an extra dimension and places the work in a wider context. The writing of the texts could then begin as well – each photographer (or representative of an estate) has written a commentary on the assignment, how the photographs were taken, what happened at the time and what followed.

As a commissioning editor, one has the privilege of working with the very best, sometimes in terms of the authors or individuals, sometimes in terms of the book’s content. With Magnum Contact Sheets it is both. If I’m asked if I have a favourite sheet in the book, I say that I don’t have one – it is how it all adds up together collectively, which is entirely appropriate given how Magnum works. One can look at the book as both an exceptional insight into how the greatest photographers work and create legendary images and as an incredible slice of human history from the 1930s to the present day. Even in our image-saturated world there is something genuinely fresh, something original something so human, in appreciating a book that contains such a broad spectrum of stories and outstanding photographs. It is books such as this one that show that the printed book still has, if one plays to the virtues of what a book can do that a screen can’t, an exciting and thriving future.

Missed any of the posts in our Life Cycle series on Magnum Contact Sheets? Click here to read them all.

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