Photo: ©Herb Ritts, Versace Back View, El Mirage, 1990. Contact sheet (detail).
For a photography aficionado, there is nothing quite so thrilling as looking at contact sheets. It is like reading a diary, delving into private realms that were not meant for public consumption. Like the old drafts of a novel or the prior recordings before the master tape, the contact sheet tells the story of how it happened—how we got to this place. It is a narrative all its own, one that few will ever know, unless the photographer blesses us with a view.
Then, what we see is magical: that heart-stopping, breathtaking moment like in the theater when an actor breaks the fourth wall. It is an acknowledgement of the very construction of it all: the recognition that everything we see has a history and a reality that we rarely ever know. The contact sheet seduces with what it reveals—all that has been hidden from our sight now appears.
Fahey/Klein, Los Angeles, understands this and has curated CONTACT, a new group show that brings together seminal images of the twentieth century alongside the contact sheets from which they were born, currently on view through January 28, 2017. Featuring works by Harry Benson, William Claxton, Arthur Elgort, Roxanne Lowit, Christopher Makos, Herb Ritts, Lawrence Schiller, Norman Seeff, Stephen Somerstein, Phil Stern, Julian Wasser, and Bob Willoughby, among others CONTACT offers a glimpse into the practices of the masters.
Consider Stephen Somerstein’s famous photograph of the back of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s head, which was taken at the completion of the 5-day, 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in March 1965. Dr. King stands before a crowd 25,000 deep on the steps of the capitol building who have gathered to fight for their right to vote, and here he speaks: “There never was a moment in American history more honorable and more inspiring than the pilgrimage of clergymen and laymen of every race and faith pouring into Selma to face danger at the side of its embattled Negroes.”
Where most every image we have of Dr. King reveals his face, Somerstein has taken a new tack, standing behind this great man to reveal something unexpected: the infinite balance between strength and vulnerability that are the crux of what makes s/he who wields power a leader of tremendous honor, nobility, and integrity.
Taken alone the photograph is a single moment rendered timeless, to the emblematic leader whose voice rings in our mind’s ear, speaking truth to power and willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. Taken in context of the contact sheet, it becomes something more: it becomes the embodiment of the entire experience through Somerstein’s eyes. It is the peak, and then we watch the energy ebb, as the photographer turns his camera on the marchers after their work has been completed. And then we realize, Dr. King was but one part of the whole and it was the people who gave him the power to do what was required.
And then we realize that the photographer and the photograph are but a part of the bigger picture that makes change possible. While we are apt to consider the person or work as extraordinary, CONTACT reminds us that context matters and it behooves us to remember this to the best of our ability.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.