We tend to see photos in isolation. By that I don’t mean we only see one photo at a time — between Facebook, Flickr, and Instagram, we’ve become comfortable consuming many photos at once — but that we see only one photo from a scene.
We see the image the photographer has chosen as the best representative of a moment or depiction of a scene. The shot that conveys or captures exactly that which the photographer wants to show us. But behind every curated and published moment are a whole host of discarded, deleted, and forgotten images. It’s these moments, the ones we don’t see, that I want to focus on with this post.
In the days of film, once a roll was developed, a photographer would make a contact sheet, a print of all the negatives from the developed roll. Sifting through these negatives, the photographer would pick out the best for further developing and enlargement. The rest of the negatives would be filed or tossed away and rarely seen again.
But in those negatives there was a story. The story of how that one, published, enlarged, printed photo that was seen and shared came into being. The contact sheet shows the history and the aftermath of that one photo. What happened initially that the photographers eye and lens were drawn to that particular scene. It shows how they moved about the scene. How they developed the composition from that first frame to the last.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose famous 1933 photo of children playing the ruins of a building in Seville we’ll look at presently, described the contact sheet beautifully:
A contact sheet is a little like a psychoanalyst’s casebook. It is also a kind of seismograph that records the moment. Everything is written down – whatever has surprised us, what we’ve caught in flight, what we’ve missed, what has disappeared, or an event that develops until it becomes an image that is sheer jubilation.
Cartier-Bresson captured the image I want us to look at during his three-month journey around Spain in 1933. You’ve likely seen it before; it’s one of the great images of the last century.
This image is strikingly composed. A bullet riddled white wall provides a neat outer frame for the broken and jagged bricks exposed by some explosion or demolition. This inner frame opens to a scene of young boys playing the rubble. In the distance one of the boys lifts a rock to throw at another further through the fallen building. But most of the children are looking at Cartier-Bresson.
Ranging from maybe 4 to 10 the children have turned this old battleground into a playground. Elevated in the center right of the frame one of the boys looks to be jumping through the hole in the wall. His head and foot breaking out of the inner frame. It is as if the boys are escaping from the ruin and jumping out of the photo. Because the boys in front look to Bresson, it is as if they are looking at us.
In the foreground the boy in the lower right is himself perfectly framed by the broken white wall while on the left the boy in the dark jacket is captured behind and between the two boys in white shirts. The lines of the broken interior walls neatly and symmetrically draw our us back to the boy in the far distance next to the open door. Overhead, the broken roofless wall connects merges with the broken arching whole in the foreground to create a window up to the sky. And none of that even begins to touch on the emotion of the boy’s faces and the story their clothing tells.
It is such a remarkable photo and I never tire of looking at it.
But again, today, it is not this photo itself that I’m interested in looking at, it’s all the other from this roll that we don’t see.
The contact sheet tells a fascinating story here. Clearly from the first frame, Cartier-Bresson knew he had an interesting scene. I wonder whether it was the boy on the crutches or the hole in the wall that first caught his eye. He seems to have approached the scene from the right, catching the boys as they tumble down this alley contrived by war and falsely cobbled by the crumbling walls on either side.
Quickly he centers his shot. He knows the foreground wall makes for a fantastic frame. As the boys gather closer he reframes and shoots more of a portrait of the boy with the hat. But he seems to have reconsidered at this point and gone back to that second shot of the wall neatly composing the scene within and without.
By this point one of the boys has climbed up onto the wall and is coming through. He snaps off one more frame before repositioning to incorporate the boy on the crutches. As the scene progresses Cartier-Bresson’s interest seems to shift to this particular boy and it is with him that he runs out the rest of his film.
Once developed, it’s clear, compositionally, what Cartier-Bresson was happy about. The first and fourth frame are circled. While I would say the fourth is clearly the best from the roll, Bresson seems to have been quite interested in the first (notice that it’s also highlighted above and below). While we can’t be sure, again I wonder, given the number of shots he devoted to the boy on the crutches, if he thought this first frame was somehow more evocative than the fourth. But the lasting image, the one we know today, is the fourth. That perfectly composed, fantastically framed, image of boys playing in the war torn ruins of a city.
From my point of view as an amateur photographer there is one other aspect of this contact sheet I find deeply compelling. Not every shot is a masterpiece.
When I get home after shooting and load up my images I may come away with one or two I like, but the vast majority go straight into the bin. Now digital photography does encourage or at least allow for waste. Each click of the shutter is free, unlike with film where every exposure has a monetary cost. So with digital there is little to inhibit you from firing off a few shots at every and any thing that catches your eye. You tell yourself that maybe one of them will turn out.
Still, I think digital contact sheets can tell their own interesting stories. I thought I might share one such example here. This is not offered in the belief that my images are anything like Cartier-Bresson’s, simply as a reflection on the story contact sheets can tell.
A contact sheet is full of erasures, full of detritus. A photo exhibition or a book is an invitation to a meal, and it is not customary to make guests poke their noses into the pots and pans, and even less into the buckets of peelings… —Henri Cartier-Bresson
So let’s look at one such bucket of my peelings.
It was October 2014 and the swell out on the North Sea was tremendous. Surprisingly there was very little wind. Somehow these giant waves had been mustered up by forces unknown and were crashing over St Andrews pier. I could see the rollers and whitecaps from my office window so scampered down to have a closer look.
My first thought was to get close. As close as I could with getting wet. Robert Capa famously said, “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” And Capa was a man who knew what he was talking about, having served as a photographer during the D-Day landing on Omaha beach.
The waves were impressive, but without the context of a person for scale the resulting images felt rather bland. I waited, hopping for a few brave souls to tempt fate and risk a wardrobe change. I didn’t have to wait long.
I fired away as the action unfolded in front of me. I was pleased with what I was seeing, but the composition of the shot still didn’t sit quite right. I felt like I was missing out on the sense of danger and excitement. I wasn’t close enough.
I backtracked along the pier and climbed up on to the higher outer wall. At this distance the scene felt more dynamic. I could see the waves coming in, the pier dwarfed by the climbing walls of water and people scuttling for cover when a big one hit.
I timed my run and between waves made my way down the wall. I was closer but still not close enough.
Finally I found my spot. I sat down with my legs dangling over wall so that I was firmly anchored should a particularly large wave wash over the wall. If I was going to get washed anywhere I wanted it to be on to the pier, not out to sea.
I was pleased with the composition I’d found. Good strong lines from the pier and railing, nice low perspective for a slightly different take on the scene, and lots of people wearing strong colors for fun points of reference. Now it was just a matter of patience, timing, and keeping dry.
Wave after wave threw up cascades of white water. People cowered, gripped the railing, and ran for cover. And I was in the thick of it. Just far enough away to catch the scene and just close enough that the risk was real. I happily snapped away as spray and foam and the mirthful cries of the soggy students swirled around me.
Pulling together the images onto one contact sheet tells this story. You can see what I was thinking. How I came for the waves and then moved and shifted and probed to find the shot I knew was there but just couldn’t quite see until I found it.
At the end of the day there are a handful of images I’m happy with, but one in particular stood out:
The height and power of the wave, the reactions of the boy in blue at the end of the pier gripping the navigation light looking up at the water that will soon drench him, the reflection in the puddle of the railing and red trousers, the men running for cover below, the hint of blue sky, almost wholly obscured by the spray, and the white water around every corner.
Although a year and a half old now it remains a favorite, and a lovely memory of a fantastically exhilarating afternoon. I also like that it was the result or a patient searching and waiting for the shot I knew was there and just had to find. It’s no Bresson, but on the day, at the time, it was the best I could do.
As I leaf through books on and of photography, like Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment, I am one part inspired and one part defeated. I want to take great photos, but I’m confident I’ll never take photos like these. But seeing the contact sheets like the one from Saville gives me hope.
There are good photos out there, but between them there is practice and there are missed shots. There is the mind of the photographer discerning what’s in and what’s out. Deciding on composition and focus and speed. Great photographers don’t just take great photos. They build them, they work at them, they move about a scene testing, and probing, and experimenting to find that one shot that will be shared. While I’ll never be Bresson, I can do that. I can test. I can move. I can probe. I can experiment.
I can keep hunting for those great photos.
About the author: Spencer Bentley is a hobbyist photographer based in St. Andrews, Scotland. Originally from Canada, he’s working on finishing his PhD in Divinity. In addition to providing a creative outlet in the midst of his academic research, photography helps him slow down and see the world around him in fresh ways. You can find more of his work and writing on his website, blog, and Instagram. This article was also published here.