The Magnum Contact Sheets Exhibition at the C/O Gallery, Berlin
Haus Hardenbergstr, 22-24
Following their anticipated re-opening, the C/O gallery have bounced back with the Magnum Photographic Agency’s contact sheet exhibition. They may no longer be housed by the charming old post office building, but now they’re up beside the Helmut Newton gallery, ready to impress. You may be confused by the concept of delaying the impact of the final photograph with a contact sheet, but they give an intimate insight into the photographer’s creative process. More illuminating than artist’s sketchbooks, contact sheets expose all of the imperfections, smudges and blurs. The comments scribbled down the margins add a sense of intimacy and insight to the transparent reality that photography offers us. The contact sheet is an artefact in itself with links to film, narration and photojournalism, displaying chronicled sequences of passionately committed reportage. Across the tables, there are also delicate copies of Life magazines, which give a little context to the photojournalism on the walls.
The exhibition is displayed throughout a labrinyth of rooms decorated in a grisaille colour palette that contributes to the calming ambience. Feeding our curiosity, Magnum has selected a principle photograph from each contact sheet with glass screens allowing you to read the comments on the back. What makes the exhibition so brilliant are the information panels below each piece, which tell the stories with a beautiful nostalgia. The sentimentality of the authorship makes them intensely gripping and makes us really understand the depth of the photographer’s vision. I love to play the voyeur at exhibitions, observing the reactions of those around me as they respond to the evocative texts. I’d sketch their curious faces if I could train myself to be less conspicuous.
The exhibition began with the work of Henri Cartier Bresson whose retrospective I had savoured in Paris this summer. Below the photographs of his Spanish wanderings were the profound words, “pulling a good picture out of a contact sheet is like going down to the cellar and bringing back a good bottle to share.” Next to his pieces were a series of portraits by Herbert List, which depicted an elegant Dalmatian juxtaposed with strong male legs. This memorable work illustrates why he was such a strong stylistic influence for photographers like Bruce Weber and Herb Ritts.
All the more intriguing were the delicate photographs of Werner Bischof who was fascinated by the natural beauty of Japan. His contact sheet shows Japan in the winter and accompanies the letters he wrote to his wife Rosellina in 1951 about Japanese trees, which he loved to feel the wind blowing through. He wrote to her about the sentimental Japanese tradition of sheltering fragile trees and flowers within their houses as symbols of nobility and purity.
In sharp contrast was the photojournalism of George Roger who made incredible voyages across 9000 miles of African dessert to photograph his subjects, developing his photographs in dusty baths rather than risking the Kodak printers. Inevitably most of his work was lost and Life Magazine only afforded him a double page spread, despite taking thousands of shots. I was particularly taken with his image Western Desert, 1941, which depicts a forlorn young man standing hopeless in mourning at the sight of a plane wreckage. To see such pain in a young man’s eyes is incredibly moving, all the more so, because of the other images on the contact sheet, which give us more insight into the situation. Continuing the theme of despair is Constantine Manos’s Frauen am grab (women at graveside) 1962, which captures a moment of destructive grief experienced by this group of women gathered by a graveside in solidarity. The lines of their elderly faces only intensify the emotion.
The themes of freedom and youth are entwined throughout the entire exhibition as illustrated by the photographer Burt Glinn who travelled to Cuba to capture his photographs of young people gathered in wait of news of Fidel Castro, Havanna, 1959. The group are a particularly beautiful assortment of sun-drenched youth who are anticipating the arrival of Che Guevara after Fidel Castro’s departure. The infectious energy of the bohemians that moved to California in 1960s is beautifully captured by Dennis Stock in his photographs. He focused on California, because he thought that the eccentricity of the state was unique and it perfectly captured the hippy lifestyle that people sought in the renewed desire to care for others, pursue adventure and live simply. This image of a high woman drifting around in front of musicians at a Californian Rock Concert, Venice Beach, 1968 embodies their ideology.
Contact sheets are all about capturing the spirit of a moment and Steve McCurry did just that in his series of photographs taken during a dust storm in India. When it was as hot as the planet can be in high summer he was standing amongst a group of woman who were singing prayers for rain. With the dark orange light of the approaching storm illuminating their polychromatic saris, he decided that he’d rather risk breaking his camera than miss their moment of beautiful solidarity.
Despite Richard Kauar’s challenges with voyeurism, he experimented with how people modify their behaviour when photographed up close. This image depicts Micha Bar Am 1930, which was the Israeli plane hijacked in 1976 between Tel Aviv and Paris. The hostages were being reunited with their families in a scene of raw emotion and high tension thanks to the proximity of the photographers.
After the gravity of this piece, a charming little piece close to the exhibition’s end was Martine Frack’s Buddhist monks, Nepal, 1996. The photograph shows a dove interrupting an endearing moment of intergenerational interaction between teacher and pupil. As I hope I have illustrated the exhibition is a rare occasion to look at photography from a different perspective so I would highly recommend making it your first stop in Berlin. The techno dens will wait.
Written by Flora Alexandra Ogilvy, founder of Arteviste.com