A contact sheet is worth 1,000 words

The ‘Magnum – Contact Sheet’ exhibition at Istanbul Modern

By Victoria Khroundina | July 14, 2015


There’s still time to catch the excellent Magnum – Contact Sheet show at Istanbul Modern. The museum’s photography exhibitions usually showcase important Turkish photographers or shed light on significant moments in the Turkish photography scene. This time attention is turned away from Turkey to the powerhouse Magnum Photos agency.

The exhibition uses the contact sheet as a basis for exploring the creative process behind some of the world’s most iconic images. By including first-person accounts, the show gives audiences an insight into the decision-making processes of the agency’s photographers and the ways the resulting photographs have affected our reading of major world events.

Photographs from over 70 years of visual history are displayed chronologically, starting in 1930 and finishing in the 2000s. Each display shows the photographer’s contact sheet and the final photograph that was chosen. And that’s where the interest lies – the contact sheet reveals that the final choice usually only shows just a speck of the whole shoot and is often not fully representative of the moment. Sometimes that final photograph is the most dramatic, or the most beautiful, or the one that tells the most compelling part of the story. Sometimes it is the one that will make the most money for the media outlet that owns it. Sometimes it is used for propaganda.

‘Man and Dog’, 1938 © Herbert List / Magnum Photos

One of the earliest photographs on display is the German photographer Herbert List’s ‘Man and Dog’ (above), from 1938. Probably List’s best-known photograph, it has been described as ‘elegant’ and ‘subliminally erotic’. List photographed for fashion magazines such as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Life, and this photograph is in a way typical of his glamorous fashion shoots. The contact sheet reveals the playfulness of the shoot, away from the studio where most fashion photography of the time was shot.

‘Dali Atomicus’, New York, USA, 1948 © Philippe Halsman / Magnum Photos

The American photographer Philippe Halsman’s portrait of his close friend, the Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dalí, was inspired by Dalí’s 1948 painting ‘Leda Atomica’. Working out of Halsman’s New York studio, it took four assistants and Halsman’s wife to achieve the perfect composition of all the suspended elements (as the contact sheet shows). The resulting image resembles a dreamlike Dalí masterpiece.

‘D-Day’, Normandy, France, June 1944 © Robert Capa / Magnum Photos

Photographs of some of the most important moments in history are also on display, such as the above image showing the D-Day landings by the legendary Hungarian war photographer Robert Capa. The contact sheet shows many variables – some with just a few or no soldiers. Capa choice was this blurry close-up of a group of soldiers running into the water – truly one of the most emotional and human of the bunch.

‘Paris Riots’, France, May 1968 © Bruno Barbey / Magnum Photos

In May 1968 the 27-year-old Moroccan-born French photographer Bruno Barbey photographed the Paris riots, one of the most volatile periods of civil unrest in France's history, punctuated by demonstrations, strikes and the occupation of universities and factories across the country. ‘I was on constant alert,’ says Barbey, quoted on the plaque next to the display. ‘I never had time to edit my photos properly. When the demonstrations went to sleep, I had to go back to the agency for my film to be developed so I could edit. It was an atrocious rhythm to live by. There was no digital technology and the contact sheets were usually not that great. They were often very dense, and too dark, so I couldn’t see all the images properly.’

‘Tiananmen Square’, Beijing, China, June 1989 © Stuart Franklin / Magnum Photos

The London-born photographer and former Magnum Photos president Stuart Franklin’s photograph of Tiananmen Square was taken on the morning of June 4, 1989. It was the day after a crackdown on demonstrators at the square, which was cleared overnight, with journalists and photographers trapped in their quarters at the Beijing Hotel. The contact sheet is an assemblage of photographs in more or less chronological order, with the iconic lone protester somewhere in the middle. ‘I was always frustrated with my photographs. I was too far away,’ says Franklin, quoted on the plaque next to his archetypal image. ‘But after television footage moved the whole world, I guess the photograph of defiance became iconic and at the same time symbolic of the whole juggernaut of the Chinese state being challenged by its people. In this sequence, I try to place the work in context, in space and time.’

‘Kitchen Debate’, Moscow, Russia, July 1959 © Elliott Erwitt / Magnum Photos

One of the most controversial images in the show is Elliott Erwitt’s ‘Kitchen Debate’. Erwitt’s shot of a hard-hitting Nixon, jabbing his finger at Khrushchev’s chest during a momentary adversarial encounter, comes towards the end of a contact sheet depicting mostly amicable exchanges between the two politicians. But when Nixon got his hands on the image and used it on a campaign poster in 1960, it quickly became one of the most potent Cold War propaganda images. Erwitt has been described as a master of what Henri Cartier-Bresson called ‘the decisive moment’ – and this photograph is a fine example. 

‘Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara’, Havana, Cuba, January 1963 © René Burri / Magnum Photos

The exhibition also showcases iconic portraiture of political figures, actors, artists and musicians, including Che Guevara, Malcolm X, Miles Davies and The Beatles, to name a few. René Burri’s photograph of Che Guevara was captured in early 1963, during an interview between Guevara and a reporter from Look magazine. Burri, who photographed many key 20th-century figures, remembers how he was mostly ignored during the two-hour, often heated interview. The contact sheet captures many differing moments, most of them showing Guevara looking away from the camera. Burri still recalls the moments before this now world-famous image of Guevara was taken. ‘I remember when he bit off the tip of his cigar, I expected him to offer me one. But he was so immersed in the discussion.’ The photo ended up on t-shirts and even a flag.

Exhibition view, ‘The Beatles’, 1964 © David Hurn / Magnum Photos

Meanwhile David Hurn’s image of the fab four – shot at Abbey Road Studios – is less candid and more measured, though here too the subjects do not face the camera.

Exhibition view, ‘Margaret Thatcher’, 1981, © Peter Marlow / Magnum Photos

Another one of interest is the English news photographer Peter Marlow’s image of Margaret Thatcher, taken in 1981, two years after she became Prime Minister and five years after Captain Yuri Gavrilov nicknamed her the ‘Iron Lady’ in the Soviet newspaper Red Star. Marlow, then a youngish photographer assigned to Newsweek, blasted away during Thatcher’s speech, hoping to get the shot that would end up on the magazine’s cover. The contact sheet shows a range of Thatcher’s emotions during the speech, and there are many of her smiling. But the one chosen? Well, it firmly reflects her ‘Iron Lady’ reputation.

‘The Chain’, Kaohsiung, Taiwan, October 1998 © Chien-Chi Chang / Magnum Photos

Above is Chien-Chi Chang’s contact sheet from a 1998 shoot at the Long Fa Tang temple, a sanctuary and prison for 700 mental-health patients in Taiwan. It had taken Chang six years to gain permission to photograph there. When he finally did, he set up in the warehouse and the patients were brought to him in pairs when they were on their lunch breaks. There was no medication or treatment on offer at the temple – the focus was on ‘therapeutic chains’, meaning that a more lucid patient would be chained to a less lucid one. ‘When I pressed the shutter, I thought I was in control,’ Chang is quoted as saying on the plaque next to the display. ‘But looking back, they were too. When they wanted to walk off, they walked. In some frames, you can see one partner tugging at the chain to rein in the other.’

‘Satellites’, Altai Territory, Russia, 2000 © Jonas Bendiksen / Magnum Photos

One of the more recent photographs on display is the one above, by the Norwegian photojournalist Jonas Bendiksen, showing the remains of a Soyuz space rocket in the Altai Territory of Russia. Shot on negative film, the contact sheet shows local farm boys gutting the rocket for re-useable scrap metal. The final choice of photograph captures a magical moment as a cloud of white butterflies circle the scene.

The exhibition continues until August 2. Don’t miss the adjacent Mehmet Güleryüz retrospective, on show for just less than two more weeks (read my review here). And for more photography-themed exhibitions, there are portraits by Cecil Beaton at the Pera Museum (until July 26; read my review here), portraits by the young Italian-born photographer and Emmy-Award-nominated director, Francesco Carrozzini at Istanbul’74 (until July 31), and Camera Ottomana at the RCAC, which looks at photography and modernity in the Ottoman Empire from 1840 to 1914 (until August 19). Check the blog next week for a review of the latter. 

Posted in Exhibitions, History, Museums, Photography
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