woman with children and text Feature Essay on Contact Sheets for Michael Levin monograph



Foreword for 'Contacts' - Limited Edition Chapbook



Photographers are often queried about why they select a particular image, above all other captured choices, to be the singular image that represents a scene. Why is that one dominant and not the others? Fine art photographer Michael Levin decided to turn that age-old question into a compelling story for a limited edition series of chapbooks. For the Foreword essay, I consider the iconic image,Migrant Mother, by 1930s photojournalist Dorothea Lange that shifted social consciousness about the unbearable hardships of migrant workers during the Depression. If that one image could change thinking, why not the others? 

painting of man writing with text Pull Quote

“If, as one critic has it, the other negatives on a contact sheet are “competing images”, the rules for one photograph advancing over the others remain hard to know.  Defining what makes a moment magic is subject to the alchemy of the artist.  But with Contacts, Michael Levin lays bare his working materials and we the audience feel for a moment like a sorcerer’s apprentice.  Still, there is always a trick to a photographer’s eye that no one else can explain.  Even in truth, mystery abides.

Barry Dumka 



Foreword for 'Contacts'

The famed photojournalist Dorothea Lange shot five photographs before she arrived at the moment that became her most famous image, Migrant Mother. Lange’s contact sheet from this time shows that she advanced gradually on Frances Owens Thompson, the worn down farm labourer photographed in a Depression-era migrant worker’s camp along with her four children.  Each image takes up a different vantage-point: in all of them the mother sits motionless, sunken into herself, staring blankly into the distance while the children spill around her, more curious and watchful of Lange’s lens.  Only in the last frame do the children pull close to their mother and turn away from the camera allowing her face, ruled by worry, to stand out.  Lange selected this particular image to send to local newspapers which made it a compelling portrait of poverty and transience.  

That one photograph moved a nation; the other five were lost to obscurity.


While a single image can be iconic, the contact sheet including that image provides context and a fuller story.  A contact sheet illustrates the journey to reach a particular moment so there is the possibility for a personal narrative to show through the sequence of shots – an exploration into the intimacies of artistic choice. For a second-hand observer that key-hole view into the working process of a photographer feels privileged, even confidential.  We are curious to learn what is there that didn’t get published; what was considered that eventually got rejected.


— (end of excerpt)




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