Daily Picture Show

The Art Of The Contact Sheet

Those beautiful magazine portraits of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are usually accepted at face value. But the perfect cover photo is usually the product of much trial and error; it's one of dozens of frames (or hundreds, if we're talking digital) — and just might even be an accident.

To see the entire contact sheet from a photo shoot is a rare and strangely intimate experience, almost like reading a photographer's diary. It's fascinating to see how the artist's eye wanders, how the mind works, how a scene evolves. This is the idea behind a new book, The Contact Sheet, published by Ammo Books, which explores the process behind some of the most iconic photographs.

  • French-born Elliott Erwitt is known for his humorous, lighthearted photographs of children, dogs and celebrities. This contact sheet is from a session with Marilyn Monroe in 1956.
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    French-born Elliott Erwitt is known for his humorous, lighthearted photographs of children, dogs and celebrities. This contact sheet is from a session with Marilyn Monroe in 1956.
    Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos / Courtesy of www.ammobooks.com
  • Erwitt rarely staged photographs. This image shows Monroe at ease in her home.
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    Erwitt rarely staged photographs. This image shows Monroe at ease in her home.
    Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos / Courtesy of www.ammobooks.com
  • This set of color slides shows photographs taken by David Doubilet, who is known for his underwater photography.
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    This set of color slides shows photographs taken by David Doubilet, who is known for his underwater photography.
    David Doubilet/Courtesy of www.ammobooks.com
  • Doubilet took this series while on assignment in New Ireland, Papua New Guinea. It shows a diver surrounded by Pacific barracuda.
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    Doubilet took this series while on assignment in New Ireland, Papua New Guinea. It shows a diver surrounded by Pacific barracuda.
    David Doubilet/Courtesy of www.ammobooks.com
  • Joel Meyerowitz is a street photographer and one of the earliest advocates of color photography. He took this series in New York City in 1968.
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    Joel Meyerowitz is a street photographer and one of the earliest advocates of color photography. He took this series in New York City in 1968.
    Joel Meyerowitz/Edwynn Houk Gallery / Courtesy of www.ammobooks.com
  • A series of Meyerowitz's photography was on view at New York's Museum of Modern Art at the time — all photos taken from a moving car. This one was taken from a Volkswagen bus.
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    A series of Meyerowitz's photography was on view at New York's Museum of Modern Art at the time — all photos taken from a moving car. This one was taken from a Volkswagen bus.
    © 2009 Joel Meyerowitz/Courtesy of www.ammobooks.com
  • Martin Parr is an English photographer known for his provocative images, full of humor and criticism of popular culture.
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    Martin Parr is an English photographer known for his provocative images, full of humor and criticism of popular culture.
    Martin Parr/Magnum Photos / Courtesy of www.ammobooks.com
  • This contact sheet was taken in Benidorm, Spain, in 1997, while Parr was shooting for a series on European cliches — such as luxuriant sunbathers.
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    This contact sheet was taken in Benidorm, Spain, in 1997, while Parr was shooting for a series on European cliches — such as luxuriant sunbathers.
    Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
  • Jeanloup Sieff was a high-end fashion photographer who worked mostly in New York in the 1960s.
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    Jeanloup Sieff was a high-end fashion photographer who worked mostly in New York in the 1960s.
    The Estate of Jeanloup Sieff/Courtesy of www.ammobooks.com
  • This 1964 series was taken in Palm Beach for Harper's Bazaar, for a fashion story called "Chic Is."
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    This 1964 series was taken in Palm Beach for Harper's Bazaar, for a fashion story called "Chic Is."
    The Estate of Jeanloup Sieff/Courtesy of www.ammobooks.com
  • Alex Prager is a self-taught photographer whose work has been shown in various exhibitions in the U.S. and Europe.
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    Alex Prager is a self-taught photographer whose work has been shown in various exhibitions in the U.S. and Europe.
    Alex Prager/Courtesy of www.ammobooks.com
  • The work of William Eggleston inspired Prager's interest in photography, which shows in her photos. Surprisingly, this series was taken outside in a parking lot.
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    The work of William Eggleston inspired Prager's interest in photography, which shows in her photos. Surprisingly, this series was taken outside in a parking lot.
    Alex Prager/Courtesy of www.ammobooks.com
  • Dorothea Lange was a documentary photographer for the federal Resettlement Administration, which later became the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Her photograph, "Migrant Mother," is one of the most iconic images of the Great Depression.
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    Dorothea Lange was a documentary photographer for the federal Resettlement Administration, which later became the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Her photograph, "Migrant Mother," is one of the most iconic images of the Great Depression.
    Dorothea Lange/Library of Congress / Courtesy of www.ammobooks.com
  • Lange took five frames of this woman, slowly approaching from one direction until she captured this famous frame. She didn't ask for information on the woman.
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    Lange took five frames of this woman, slowly approaching from one direction until she captured this famous frame. She didn't ask for information on the woman.
    Dorothea Lange/Library of Congress / Courtesy of www.ammobooks.com

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It's also disconcerting to think that, because of the photographer's own editorial process, the majority of photographs go unseen. There's no telling how many works of art remain buried in dusty binders and old shoe boxes. Fortunately, this book provides a rare glimpse at a few of those contact sheets.

And there's more. An exhibition just opened at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art. "A Few Frames: Photography and the Contact Sheet" explores the use of the contact sheet in art, with works by such artists as Andy Warhol and Robert Frank.

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hide captionUntitled, by David Wojnarowicz, 1988, from the exhibition "A Few Frames: Photography and the Contact Sheet"

Courtesy of Whitney Museum of American Art

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