Sunday, February 21, 2010

Contact Sheets: Visual Poems and Stories

Dory's Contact Sheet and Negatives

“Robert Frank, Swiss, unobtrusive, nice, with that little camera that he raises and snaps with one hand he sucked a sad poem out of America onto film, taking rank among the poets of the world.”
~ Jack Kerouac, excerpt from his introduction to The Americans

One of my favorite things about Looking In: Robert Frank’s “The Americans” – Expanded Edition is that it includes 81 pages of his contact sheets. There were hundreds of contact sheets from his project, but these were the ones which contained the 83 images he chose for his book. Frank spent two years editing 760 rolls of film and 27,000 individual images down to the 83 photographs selected for The Americans. From his contact sheets he chose 1000 images to make into work prints, and then he narrowed those down to the final 83 for his book

Contact sheets are rapidly becoming relics of the past as photography shifts from film to a digital format. I’ve always been fascinated by the stories those tiny images tell. Made by placing the strips of negatives directly onto a piece of photographic paper, the images are the same size as the negatives, but appear as positives through the developing process of the paper. Typically the first thing a photographer would make after developing the film, a contact sheet served as the first look at the positive images captured. It also served as a reference index for filing purposes to minimize the handling of negatives, which can be easily scratched and damaged.

Looking at another photographer’s contact sheets brings out the voyeur in me (seriously, every photographer and writer has a voyeuristic side – it’s the drive that compels us to pick up a camera or pen, it’s what makes us watchers and observers). I got out my magnifying glass to examine the progression of images on those contact sheets, fascinated by how he approached his subjects.

Contact sheets impose a sort of history on our days and weeks by showing the order in which frames were shot on any given roll of film. Mine include family shots squeezed in between more serious documentary work. Sometimes I am amazed by how many different things are on a single contact sheet – California beaches, an Amish sale in Pennsylvania, my parents’ silver wedding anniversary, and a train ride with friends and family in Pittsburgh. The contact sheet and corresponding negatives shown in the photograph at the top of this post are from a trip across Lake Michigan on a steam-powered ferry that carried passengers and their automobiles. Deep in the belly of the boat were also dozens of Chessie System railroad cars. My contact sheet from this particular roll contains some family shots of our young nephew who had accompanied us on that trip, which included a stop at the Baraboo Circus Museum in Wisconsin.

Today, digital frames are downloaded and filed in a more individual way which breaks up and divides the chronology. Individual shots are easily deleted now. With the click of a button they’re gone. But back then, those old contact sheets told it all when the only way to delete images was to snip them out of the film strip or cross them out on the proof sheet.

Several of Robert Frank’s contact sheets were of particularly interest to me. The first contains the photograph used for the cover of the new expanded edition of The Americans, an image of an American Flag obscuring the faces of people looking out the window, in the photograph titled “Parade – Hoboken, NJ 1955.” The sequence of shots show parade dignitaries and politicians, faces in the crowd lining the sidewalks to watch the parade, then a few frames of the people at the window above the street where an American flag hangs – a scene which he returns to four separate times over three rolls of film seen on three contact sheets.

In contrast is the contact sheet containing the photograph titled “Trolley – New Orleans, 1955” which was the original cover image for the 1959 Grove Press edition (The Americans was first published in Paris in 1958, then in the United States the following year). There is only a single shot of the trolley, that famous image of the riders framed in the open windows and divided by race with white riders to the front, abstract reflections mirrored in the glass of the raised windows above their heads.

Another contact sheet of a highway accident is surprising for the number of images taken of a single scene. The photograph “Car Accident – U.S. 66, between Winslow and Flagstaff, Arizona, 1955” had always seemed isolated and desolate to me. Four witnesses stand alongside a remote section of highway, the unmistakable figure of a body shrouded by a blanket at their feet in the foreground. But the contact sheet shows more of the overall scene and reveals far more onlookers, cars waiting in line on the blocked highway, as well as an ambulance and police at the scene.

In all, Frank made three trips across the country between 1955 and 1957 for his project, funded by a Guggenheim fellowship (Walker Evans helped him polish the application). Frank’s wife Mary and young children, Andrea and Pablo, traveled with him on portions of the journey, and they are the figures in the car at the side of the highway in the final image of The Americans.

The original edition of The Americans was a slim volume containing no text beyond an introduction written by Jack Kerouac and the titles of the photographs. I’ve only begun to savor all the extras included in this new expanded edition – essays, maps, letters, work prints and contact sheets, as well as the 83 photographs from original exhibit and book. Expect more in a future post about this gorgeous, heavy, 500+ page monster of a book.

“When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice.”
~ Robert Frank

Around the Blogosphere:

The latest round for National Public Radio’s Three Minute Fiction Contest is based on the challenge of writing a very short story (estimated at around 600 words maximum) which takes three minutes or less to read aloud. The photograph and official rules are posted on the NPR website. Deadline is February 28th, 2010 and the judge is NPR book critic Alan Cheuse.

Check out Edd Fuller’s new blog Photography In Place, which I discovered last week when a Google Alert for my name led me to his post about The Photographers’ Railroad Page and my short essay there “Visions Shared.” I’ve added Photography In Place to my list of favorite blogs and websites in the sidebar at the right of the screen.

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cynthia newberry martin said...

What a wonderful elegy for contact sheets. Not being a photographer, the passing of this phase was lost on me until your post. Of course, the juxtaposition of disparate photos was likely to lead to larger stories. Yet I've only been charmed as my digital photos separated themselves in the uploading process.

Also love the quote at the end by Robert Frank.

cynthia newberry martin said...

Also meant to mention, this is the second time this week that I've heard the term "visual poetry" or "VisPo," never having heard it before.

Dory Adams said...

Hi Cynthia, thanks for the comments. Interesting how phrases seem to suddenly stand out. I've been noticing the phrase "the written image" this week.