Magnum Contact Sheets: Commissioning #1

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

Courtesy Magnum Photos
Courtesy Magnum Photos

It was always going to be a challenge to distill the story of how Magnum Contact Sheets was developed as a project and then commissioned as a book, within the confines of a blog entry. It is a story that spans, by the time the book is published in October this year, a little over four years. New authors often look slightly dazed when I explain to them the development, production and sales cycles of publishing, but four years is on the long side compared to many books.

It’s taken the time for good reasons: Magnum Contact Sheets is a book which is ambitious in scale and scope, it involves working with the world’s greatest photography collective, which is owned by its photographer members and therefore needs their commitment, it has involved those members, or the representatives of the estates of those members who are no longer with us, delving back into their archives and providing us with a privileged insight to how each photographer works. It is a book produced to impeccable standards and it is a book that takes an opportunity that history rarely provides: digital photography is now the medium of choice for practically all photography and photographers. ‘Film’ is now a technology of the past (witness the last roll of Kodachrome being shot by Magnum Photographer Steve McCurry this year) and the contact sheet, for some seven decades a central part of how a photographer or picture editor views, edits, selects and archives what they has been photographed, has now been consigned to history.

Given that opportunity: to document in detail a fragment of the history of photography, it is worth taking the time to give it your best shot.

The Cold Store, London - Courtesy Magnum Photos
Courtesy Magnum Photos

As a commissioning editor here at Thames & Hudson I plan and develop our new publications in subject areas including photography, advertising and branding and design, among others. Typically, the projects we develop come about through two routes: via individuals (or agents) proposing new projects to us, which we consider (and what is developed and then published is the very small percentage of what is initially proposed), by means of any of us who commission coming up with an idea, which we then have to find an author for, or through hearing of something that immediately lends itself to a very publishable idea. For Magnum Contact Sheets, the book started life through the last route mentioned above – it was spotting an opportunity and a classic example of what I call creating a big book from a simple idea.

Thames & Hudson has forged a healthy, collaborative relationship with Magnum Photos over the last decade. I commissioned Magnum Magnum, a huge, international hit, now in its third format, which has been published in nine different language editions and for which Thames & Hudson and Magnum have shared great success, and it was through talking to Sophie Wright, Print Room and Cultural Projects Director at Magnum Photos in London that I heard how Magnum were collating contact sheets from the individual photographer’s archives for scanning into Magnum’s main archive.

© Susan Meiselas
© Susan Meiselas

I have always found contact sheets to be utterly fascinating – they are the closest thing to a photographer’s sketchbook. They reveal so much of the photographer’s skill: Were the images the result of happenstance or serendipity, was the shot carefully planned and worked, was the fabled ‘decisive moment’ at play? And they often (but not always) bear the marks which show the way in which the photographer (or sometimes picture editor) edited down from what was shot to the single image which defines that story.

Wanting to publish the book was obvious: It was a logical sequel to Magnum Magnum and would reveal how great photographs were created, but making the book happen was much less straightforward. It’s worth keeping in mind that the development process took three years, whereas design, editing and production, took just over one.

The Cold Store, London - Courtesy Magnum Photos
Courtesy Magnum Photos

Unlike a typical author arrangement, where I am working with one, sometimes two individuals, with a Magnum book involving them in a ‘group project’, the whole membership – some 70 photographers and representatives and estates – has to take a vote on whether it is a project they would like to pursue. It is eye-opening for the publisher, normally the one with the power to green light a project, going to see ‘the author’ and pitch the concept to them to gain their approval. The boot is on the other foot.

Having successfully pitched the concept to the membership at their Annual General Meeting in Paris in June 2008, group of four people came together to develop the project beyond the initial ideas. The group consisted of: Sophie Wright of Magnum Photos, Martin Parr, Magnum photographer and the representative for all the photographers taking part in the project, Kristen Lubben, an Associate Curator at the International Center of Photography and who had worked with Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas on her wonderful book Susan Meiselas: In History, and me.

© Susan Meiselas
© Susan Meiselas

Of course, once the book is ready for design and production to commence, the team increases greatly and some of those people will be writing blog entries on their roles in the creation of an exceptional book, but at this early stage, the Commissioning Editor has to shape the concept and the content – both text and photographs or illustrations – with any author. The four of us in the group then scheduled meetings for the months ahead, not easy given Sophie and I being based in London, Kristen in New York and Martin, while being British-based, traveling widely through his assignments and work. At this stage we had an agreed concept – we knew what size and shape the book should be and how many pages it should have – but no content yet. That was the next stage – each of the photographer’s was invited to participate and to select three contact sheets from their archive along with the accompanying ‘star’ image, any ‘B’ or ‘C’ choice images and any other material, such as sketchbooks, notebooks or press passes, that would add extra visual flavour. We were clear what we had asked for, but it wasn’t clear what we would get back. That’s always the risk of publishing and working with authors, but multiply the risk to involve about 70 potential contributing photographers and you get a sense of how complex such a book is to bring together. In the next blog entry, I’ll tell you about the surprises that were in store once enough contact sheets and photographs had been collated to begin making sense of things…

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

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