One in a Million (or Dozen)

July 19, 2007


The psychologist James Gibson tells us in his influential book "The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception" (1979) that a photograph is "a record of what the photographer selected for attention." The art is in the selecting, a point made vivid by "First Contact: A Photographer's Sketchbook," the current exhibition of contact sheets at Silverstein Photography.


A contact sheet is made by laying negatives on a piece of unprocessed photographic paper and exposing it to light. Typically, one roll of film will be fitted onto one sheet of paper. The result, when the paper is developed, is small positive images of all the negatives, usually arranged in the sequence in which they were taken. Professional photographers and serious amateurs ordinarily take many more shots of a given subject than they can possibly use, so having contact sheets helps them select the few frames they want to exploit with enlargements. They examine the frames on the contact sheet with a loupe, a jeweler's magnifying glass, and try to imagine what they will look like if they are enlarged, an exercise that is not infallible.


The contact sheets at Silverstein are the work of either members of Magnum or other famous photographers, and they include among their many little frames some very well-known images. One such is Elliott Erwitt's frequently reproduced 1962 picture of two dogs and a person, or rather, one whole itty-bitty dog, the front legs of a huge dog, probably a Great Dane, and the stylish high leather boots of the woman who is walking them. The picture is an example of Mr. Erwitt's droll visual sense, made perfect by the absurd knit tam-o'-shanter the little dog is wearing and the cocky stance with which he addresses the camera.


The contact sheet has six strips of 35 mm film, each with six frames, tightly fitted one above the other so we can see the whole roll of 36 exposures. The pictures are all basically the same. Mr. Erwitt positioned his camera close to the ground in order to look the little doggy in the face and only capture the front legs of the big dog, and the woman's boots and the hem of her coat. But in 24 of the shots the little dog is sitting, and that is not as humorous as when he is standing because the disparity in leg size is not as apparent. And when he is standing, he sometimes looks one way, and sometimes another.


Six of the frames are outlined with red china marker, an essential darkroom tool. The china marker is used because it can easily be erased with a tissue. Mr. Erwitt probably had the six marked frames made into roughs, or proofs, quickly done enlargements to give him a better sense of what the negatives look like when they are made bigger. From them he selected the one we are familiar with, and worked on it until he had an enlargement with the tonal qualities and other characteristics he thought necessary for the picture to succeed. If you have only seen the final result, either as a print in a gallery or museum, or as a reproduction in a book or magazine, it seems as if Mr. Erwitt just clicked his shutter once and got this wonderful picture: The contact sheet, like successive manuscript drafts of an author's book, shows the final result was not preordained.


Richard Avedon's contact sheet of shots of Groucho Marx (1972), and Irving Penn's of Woody Allen (1972), are similar in that the photographers knew basically what they wanted, and took multiple exposures of essentially the same picture; in each exposure, though, the expressions of the subjects are slightly different. But the really interesting contact sheets are the ones that show the photographer noodling around like a jazz musician as he tries to figure out what to do with his subject. The four shots Arnold Newman took of Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O'Keeffe (1944) show four possibilities. In the first, O'Keeffe is alone staring at the camera. In the next three, she is seated and Stieglitz is standing to her left, but in the first of the three they are apart and both face the camera, in the second they are closer together but face outward toward opposite sides of the frame, and in the third she sits in profile and he stands facing front. In the last, the merged silhouette of the dramatic black capes they are both wearing holds them together as a couple, even as the different directions they look in maintains their identities as individuals.


Robert Capa's very first shot on a contact sheet from 1951 shows a somber Pablo Picasso carrying a huge beach umbrella to protect a radiant Françoise Gilot from the sun, an exquisite photograph — and for the rest of the roll he followed them around the beach taking inconsequential snapshots. Leonard Freed was shooting in several locations until he ended up on Wall Street, and in the middle of the roll took five shots of the overhead bridge on Williams Street, the third of which became one of his best-known images (1965). Dennis Stock followed James Dean around Times Square, shooting here and there, until he got the famous picture of the romantic actor sloshing through the rain (1955).

If a picture is "the record of what the photographer selected for attention," the contact sheet is the record of how he did it.