I love to look at photographer’s contact sheets. They’re private and intimate, like leafing through a sketchbook or reading someone’s diary. So often, we see a finished image and forget all about the process behind it. Henri Cartier Bresson likened contact sheets to the analyst’s couch, “It’s all there: what surprises us is what we catch, what we miss, what disappears.” It’s amazing to think about all of deleted, discarded or forgotten photographs that go unseen.
Some of my favourite contact sheets belong to the photographer, Robert Frank. While working on the The Americans, he took thousands of photographs, however, just 83 made the final cut. His contact sheets helped him sort through huge amounts of film, while figuring out which shots worked best.
Spencer Bentley sums up brilliantly in this PetaPixel article, “Great photographers don’t just take great photos. They build them, they work at them, they move about a scene testing, and probing, and experimenting to find that one shot that will be shared. While I’ll never be Bresson, I can do that. I can test. I can move. I can probe. I can experiment.”
Contact sheets remind us that great photographs don’t just happen, they’re carefully crafted, considered, framed, and often, edited.
Not every shot is a masterpiece.