The sheer size of the book alone is imposing, and upon receiving it one gets the clear understanding that this will not be one of those books you look through in a single sitting. At 524 pages, 139 Contact Sheets by 69 photographers from the Magnum Agency as well as, details and ancillary visual material, the book is the size of an encyclopedia! While some have called it the photographer’s bible, it encompasses work from the Agency’s leading figures such as Bresson, Capa, Koudelka, Erwitt, Steve McCurry, Bruce Gilden, and Bruno Barbey just to name a few. It is 70years of visual literature accompanied by commentaries from the photographers and specially commissioned authors. As if that is not mind blowing enough, it also features the publications in which the photographs were originally published.
Like many others I’m sure, I was under the misconception that all works by “the greats” were captured in single “decisive moments”, as if there was little prior planning or build-up and that they just got to the scene and produced these outstanding photos. This book has broken that myth and as Henry Cartier-Bresson is quoted saying: “a contact sheet is full of erasures, full of detritus. A photo exhibition or a book is an invitation to a meal, and it’s not customary to make guests poke their noses into pots and pans, and even less into the buckets of peelings. Pulling a good picture out of a contact sheet is like going down to the cellar and bringing back a good bottle to share.” Magnum Contact Sheets bring the godlike figures that we have come to know as the highest echelon of photographic ability in the last century to a more human level, and here we relate and appreciate their work on a much more deeper level. You get to see their many different processes; you get a glimpse of the masters in their element and witness – like you were there participating first hand – the build up to some of the most iconic photographs in the last 70 years.
The book’s chronological order allows a front row seat to the developments of humans across the world, the destructive nature of war and the beauty we encompass through art. As Kirtsen Lubben puts it, in its decades (chapters), you relive the moments “demonstrating the role of photojournalism in documenting events such as the World War II bombings of England, international politics and cultural upheavals in the 1960s and the wars in Balkans. Weaving throughout this history are more inventive and experimental images, demonstrating the range and diversity of work produced within the community of Magnum photographers.”
I have only gone through the first chapter thus far, my brain couldn’t handle that sort of stimulation all at once, however, this is a book I will keep throughout my entire life and understand why it is hailed the “photographers bible”, its great inspiration and allows for the refinement of some of your own ideas by looking at the creative processes of some of the most acclaimed photographers in history.
If you do not own one yet, I highly recommend getting yourself a copy for coffee table if only to blow the minds of your guests.