Magnum Contact Sheets

Peter Marlowe, Margaret Thatcher at Conservative Party conference, 1981

Magnum Contact Sheets is a big new photography book that presents 170 contact sheets from the famous picture agency’s files, going back to the 1940s. Magnum Photos was established after World War II in the high summer of photojournalism, when picture magazines and advertisers were hungry for images. It specialised in a humanistic strand of photojournalism when there were exhibitions with soppy titles like The Concerned Photographer and The Family of Man – some of the work in the book may seem a little out of its time to current taste. Also, a photographic contact sheet itself is an anachronism, they don’t happen in digital photography.

Despite that, the book is a unique opportunity to see photographers’ working methods, the numerous misses and ‘almosts’ that constitute the average roll of film, even of exceptional photographers. I tell my students that the great Cartier-Bresson said that if you get even three negatives per roll worth looking at you shouldn’t complain. And because it covers sixty years of work, President Kennedy, The Beatles etc it’s a history book, it takes you in close to the events.

The bad news is it retails for $175.

Philippe Halsman photographing Dali

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