Reviewed by Geoff Wittig
Not available from Amazon; must be ordered from the publisher (UPDATE: There's a 4–6 week delay in shipping from the publisher, by which time the book should be available from Amazon again. As it was just published in November, 2009, it's probably awaiting a second printing. I'll try to remember to alert you when it's available again. —Ed.)
There are lots of different ways to look at the work of other photographers. Exhibitions or books by their nature tend to be (or at least should be!) tightly edited demonstrations of their best work. But it's also very instructive seeing how a photographer actually works: how he or she arrives at the final image, starting from what we'd now call "original capture." Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans provides a very detailed look inside the editing and sequencing of Frank's landmark book, starting from thousands of negatives. Great stuff. Well, how about something along those lines looking at the work of a wider range of photographers?
The Contact Sheet provides a brief look into the editing process for more than forty highly accomplished photographers. Each section includes a biographical paragraph, followed by the photographer's comments on their working style, and sometimes specific observations about the session depicted. The text is followed by a reproduction of a contact sheet, group of slides or negatives from the session. Lastly there is a full page reproduction of the resulting photograph—many of them well known or even iconic.
Among the many examples are original slides by Steve McCurry and David Doubilet, David Hume Kennerly's contact sheet of negatives depicting Nixon's helicopter departure after resigning, Dorothea Lange's negatives of "Migrant Mother," Martin Parr's contact sheet of oiled up sunbathers...in short, a treasure trove of photographic history right down to contemporary work. In each case the reader gets a look at the raw material from which the photographer started, together with the resulting final image.
The entire project is fascinating. Pete Turner's entry notes that film was expensive and pre-dawn light brief, so he shot only a handful of frames, each a completely different composition. Yet the outtakes from "Times Square" are nearly as beautiful as the chosen frame. I wish my best photographs were half as good as Turner's rejects. Jerry Uelsman's entry shows the wide range of negatives from which he assembled one of his better known constructed images.
My only complaint is that I'd like to know more. The book's text is printed in English, French, German and Spanish in adjacent columns, which limits the extent of its content. I would love to read more detail about each photographer's deliberation—why he/she chose that specific frame rather than the one before or after. But even this tantalizing glimpse is well worth your time.