Friday, March 19, 2010

Contact Sheets: The Americans, Jim Marshall—Proof

As an amateur photographer whose photographic experience extends over several decades, I've done my time in many honest-to-goodness analog/wet darkrooms—including the several years I worked as a professional printer. I don't miss it. Sure it's a magical experience, pure, closer to what "real" photography is all about, but for me photography has always been about the other side of the equation. I prefer to shoot. Spending time in the darkroom was a necessary evil that I thankfully do not have to endure anymore. But there is one thing I miss about the darkroom, contact sheets. Without a doubt, the only thing I liked to do in the darkroom was make contact sheets. I LOVE contact sheets, but then again...

all photographers love contact sheets.

I don't think I'm going out on limb or taking a huge risk when I make that statement. It might be less true now, but I'm certain that even photographers with little or no analog experience appreciate the value of the contact sheet. Besides the fact that it used to be an important part of the photographic process, and that it's a great photographic learning tool, it is absolutely pure photographic joy, a treat. So when photographers have the opportunity to peruse a contact sheet, they will seldom pass it up.

Therefore, it's been a blast over the last several years to see the release of photo books that include contact sheets of important or iconic images. The one that had most of the photogs I know drooling is Robert Frank's Americans: Looking In. This book is a real feast for photographers. It has over 80 pages of contact sheets from Frank's epic journey around the U.S. It's such a wonderful pleasure to peer into these treasures and to see how Frank went about creating the images that eventually became what is arguably the most important photographic work ever created.

Likewise, back in 2004 Chronicle Books released a book of iconic images + contact sheets, Jim Marshall: Proof. Proof is a cool book with some very cool images. It's also much less of a beast of to wrangle with than the Frank book, which is just a bit too big to deal with comfortably. Instead, Proof has a nice open feel. It's 12" x 10" and less than an inch thick. The Frank book is 11" x 9" and just over two inches thick.

Most of the images in Proof are portraits of celebrities from the sixties and the seventies--with a good percentage of those images being shots of musicians. If you were cognizant from the sixties to the nineties and mildly interested in popular music (rock and roll) and current events, then you'll recognize the images and the individuals. There's the famous shot of Bob Dylan rolling a car tire down a New York street with a stick and iconic images of Johnny Cash (with the often replicated 'camera flip-off'), Janis Joplin, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Woody Allen, Allen Ginsberg. There's even a more recent shot of Ben Harper and Laura Dern that is really nice. And of course, you get the contact sheet from the roll that produced the image.

The contact sheets allow you to see Marshall's M.O. It's a blast to see how he worked with his subjects to get the final shot, especially the non-portrait shots where he seems to be floating around an event and recognizing photo ops. This is the real value of this book for photographers, especially those interested in portraiture. It's not hard to see and imagine how Marshall interacted with this subjects to get what he needed. He adds a short blurb of information and storytelling to each image that bring the shoot to life. All the blurbs are informative and some are pretty funny, such as when he told the Allman Brothers band that he wanted a "laughing" shot for the cover of the album 'Live at Filmore East', and that if he didn't get it, no one would get any coke.

Photography is a learning experience that never ends. If you've ever shot on the street or made an attempt at portraiture then you already know how fluid events and sittings can be—despite your best effort to control everything. Other than mentoring with an experienced photographer, the next best thing just might be perusing the contact sheets of an experienced photographer.