Contact Sheets and an Acre of Land

I was watching this interesting video about HCB, and it used the contact sheet as a way of illustrating his words and about two thirds of the way through I realised another difference between the old world and the new world – that of contact sheets. Of course contact sheets can be made up using Lightroom, Photoshop or any number of photo editing suites, but there is a structural – now called workflow – difference between the world of digital reproduction and that of ‘traditional’ or ‘analogue’ photography. It is likely that today’s film/digital hybrid practitioners, who use a contact sheet, do so to help the editing process, to bring the shots together and see how they look. The photographer, or their assistant, will have had at the very least a peek at the image, and maybe a prolonged view, before putting them together with other images to populate a sheet with images. The traditional process before would have been to develop the film, cut the roll of film into manageable sizes, six 35mm neg’s or three 120 negs per strip, ready for both the contact sheet printer and the neg binder sheets. An experienced photographer might look at these neg’s before making the contact sheet, but it would be normal to get the first viewing in positive form from the contact sheet. I’m wondering about how this has affected the editing process? Even today when most film users scan their neg’s into the digital domain they can view them screen size individually before they ever see them organised side by side – assuming they ever see them side by side – whereas the darkroom printer will see the images sometime after the image was taken and in a fixed context in the contact strip. There is a tendency to organise digital work into a contact strip form, but it is a fabrication as the digital camera presents the image individually and then in numbers that would defy all except maybe Gary Winogrand. It is possible to work without contact strips, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, it is said, only ever developed his film once a year – over a number of days – and then started to print on how the negative looked and he is reputed never to have used a contact print.

This contact sheet was taken, many years ago, investigating possibilities for an “An Acre of Land”, I didn’t complete the course, for a number of reasons, but I have been back many times to photograph this piece of land many times as it has some resonance for me that I have never been able to explain – a different post, another time perhaps. It helps that positive images are this size – 35mm contact sheets viewed actual size on a screen are a bit difficult to view. In the old days a loupe would be used, I also used a magnifying glass. The physical presence of the contact sheet allowed time to be employed in the process; there is no doubt the the transition of image making into the digital domain has reduced the time from shutter press to published image into seconds, which is not always a good thing. I have tried to make contact sheets from scanned images, but I have nearly always made an edit before scanning, based on the apparent image quality, thereby negating the opportunity of noticing how the apparent failure might possibly inform the creative possibilities of creating a developed view the next time around.

I purposely chose this example as I had clearly mounted one strip of neg’s in a contrary way and out of context, thereby negating some of what I have been talking about, however with the sheet in the hand it can be turned around, lifted to the light, flipped and manipulated in a way that the screen cannot.

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2 thoughts on “Contact Sheets and an Acre of Land

  1. As you know, I’ve just started used a medium format film camera (with much trepidation). I decided not to have prints done but just to have the negatives scanned onto a disc. However, the negatives and disc arrived with a printed contact sheet – which was a nice surprise. I’ve scanned 35mm film on our Epson 4490 but have yet to try out the 120 film – blog post in planning.

    • I’d be very interested in how you saw the contact sheet – even though you didn’t create it – the images emerged to you post the capture of the images contained therein.
      Separately are you happy with the quality of the scanning?

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