Book Review | Magnum Contact Sheets

Review and photography by Derek Clark

I have a bit of an addiction to photography books. They take very little effort to read and the amount of knowledge you can get from them is absolutely vital if you want to grow as a photographer. The biggest problem with photography books though, is not to allow them to sit on a shelf and gather dust after you first consume them. In fact you will probably gain more from them the second, third, forth, fifth time...etc. You see, these books are not DVD movies that get watched once and then sit there with no purpose other than to take up space. They are our largest source of learning and a very underestimated part in our growth. 

I have a lot of photography books, but one of the most valuable for any photographer, especially documentary photographers, is Magnum Contact Sheets. I almost feel like apologizing that this first Kage book review might be a little obvious, but I doubt if there is a better, more encyclopedic book out there that allows us inside the minds of so many great documentary photographers than Magnum Contact Sheets.

The original version of this book was an oversized and costly affair that came in with a £90 price tag here in the UK. That might be a little expensive for a book, but it was still worth it in my opinion. But the reason I never bought that version was that each time I saw it at Waterstones (bookshop), the book was always damaged in some way. Probably because it was so large and awkward too handle. But hoorah, a smaller version became available and at half the price. It's this version that you see in the photos here.

So what is Magnum Contact Sheets? Basically it's all the stuff you wouldn't normally get to see from the top Magnum photographers. The shots they take before and after that single frame that the world knows and loves. You know, the reason you think their pictures are so great and yours are as much use as an arse full of boiled snow. It shows that The Decisive Moment (as coined by Henri Cartier Bresson, who is also included in this book), while valid and at times crucial, can be a bit misleading and not really that helpful to aspiring photographers. As you will see inside the book, Bresson did not wait for that one decisive moment to present itself to his 50mm Leica lens before pressing the shutter, but worked the scene and took many shots before capturing one that he felt was good enough to present to the world. He would then continue to shoot more pictures, possibly only knowing which one was the decisive moment after looking at the contact sheet?

The book is 30cm tall x 25cm wide x 5cm thick. It has 525 pages and according to the dust jacket there are 446 illustrations, of which 240 are in colour. The dust jacket is a plain grey paper affair that is a bit flimsy and the only part of the book that doesn't live up to expectation. It looks fine, but the paper is a bit too thin and easily ripped or creased, which is usually why you will find this book damaged in bookstores. It's also the reason I bought it from Amazon and had it gift wrapped. Not because I'm a sad case that sends presents to myself, but to make sure the dust jacket would not be damaged in transit. But don't be put off by this minor detail, because every other aspect of the book is excellent. Remove the dust jacket and you have a rather surprising bright red hard cover with wax pencil design to match the contact sheet theme.

Magnum have a history in great print quality across their books and Contact Sheets is no exception. The black and white pictures have rich contrast with deep blacks and bright whites. The pages have more of a sheen than a gloss finish and that's fine by me. The only other Magnum book I can think of having better print quality would be Magnum Revolution, which is outstanding and also highly recommended.

So which photographers would you expect to find inside? Well there's Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Elliott Erwitt, Cornell Capa, Eve Arnold, Bruce Davidson, Philip Jones Griffiths, Josef Koudelka, Alex Web, Abbas, Larry Towell, Trent Parke and a lot lot more too. There are serious subject matters from 911 to Vietnam, Martin Luther King to JFK. There's also some of the more humorous pictures here too, including Elliott Erwitt's  Bulldogs 

The text that accompanies the contact sheets is equally fascinating and is written by the photographers. Josef Koudelka tells how his girlfriend called him on the 21st of August 1968 to say that the Russian troops were entering Prague. He took his two cameras, one with a 25mm lens and the other with a 35mm, both of which were loaded with motion picture film because it was cheaper, but that meant that the contact sheets had to be numbered by hand after printing. Five photos from that one contact sheet were used for Koudelka's book Invasion Prague 68. Some were also featured in a more recent book called Nationality Unknown, a book that I own and also highly recommend.

Thomas Hoepker talking about his iconic picture of Muhammad Ali's fist close to the camera with his face thrown out of focus, says "At the time we had a simple rule: if you meet an interesting person, just stay with him/her... until he/she throws you out. He goes on to tell how Ali walked over to him standing in the shadow. Ali throws a left, right, left punch into his wide angle lens. Hoepker thinks it's another missed opportunity because of the low light and trying to manually focus on those fast moving fists. But years later that one grainy shot was used by magazines and books, hung huge above museums and sells in countless photo auctions.

The book includes black and white contact sheets, colour and even some with colour slides. We see the markings made on the contact sheets as the photographers choose the frames that work and reject the ones that don't. We of course see the best shot highlighted and even see some of the notes hand written on the back of sheets.

I have many photography books in my collection and I did plan on reviewing something a little more obscure that would make me look all cool, suave and sophisticated (yes I know). But Contact Sheets kept sliding out seductively from the other books and I honestly can't think of another book that is more valuable and rich with content for the aspiring documentary photographer. This book is worth every penny and is definitely the gift that keeps on giving. Revisiting the book for this review has made me want to go back to the very beginning and slowly work my way through it once again. I hope this review has been helpful to you and if you don't already own this book, I think you should direct a few strong hints toward your significant other. The chances are, like me, you have enough gear and more gear probably won't improve your photography. But books will.

Derek Clark

Documentary photographer based in Scotland, UK. Winner of UK professional Photographer of the Year 2012 in the News category and member of The Kage Collective.