Proof: Photography In The Era of The Contact Sheet

March 23, 2020


Contact proofs, or contact sheets, were vital to the practice of photography until digital technology made them obsolete. Photographers who used roll film first saw positive images of contact sheet, chose which frames to enlarge and kept the sheet as a record. A new and special exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art Special features rare photographs of iconic celebrities, including Marilyn Monroe, the Beatles and Groucho Marx, as well as historical moments.

Comandante Che Guevara, Conference Room of the Ministry of Economics, Havana, Cuba, August 1964, ©Rodrigo Moya - courtesy of Etherton Gallery. Image courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art

“Proof: Photography in the Era of the Contact Sheet” presents approximately 180 works from the collection of Clevelanders Mark Schwartz and Bettina Katz that highlight the aims and methods of a broad range of photographers from the second half of the 20th century. The free exhibition presents key works by leading figures, including Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Harry Benson, Harry Callahan, Robert Frank, Philippe Halsman, Irving Penn and Albert Watson, as well as Schwartz’s friends Arnold Newman, Larry Fink and Emmet Gowin.

Mary with Pablo, 1951 and 1954, © Robert Frank; courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York. Image courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art

Contact sheets offer a glimpse into the working mind of a photographer,” said William Griswold. “Our late trustee Mark Schwartz and his wife, Bettina Katz, assembled an extraordinary collection of contact sheets by some of the greatest photographers of the 20th century. It is an exciting privilege for us to be able to share these rare works with the public.”

As the contact sheet became indispensable, many photographers recognized the rich aesthetic potential of an array of images—all similar, each different. Contact sheets were usually hidden from public view, but some were deliberately printed and presented as independent works of art. Many of those are not contact prints but enlargements, which encouraged a practice that gave rise to the self-contradictory term enlarged contact sheet. The exhibition presents a broad range of functions, from working documents to fully realized works of art, within 11 sections that take viewers through the photographer’s creative process and describe the subject matter on view.

Port Gibson, Mississippi, 1955,© Robert Frank; courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York. Image courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art

“For half a century contact sheets were so essential to photography that no one gave them a second thought. Thanks to the passion of Mark Schwartz and Bettina Katz, we can explore them in some depth for the first time—and there are many intriguing surprises,” said Peter Galassi, guest curator and former chief curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art.

The Beatles Times Nine, Contact Sheet, 1964, © Harry Benson. Image courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art

Proof: Photography in the Era of the Contact Sheet

Through April 12, 2020
The Cleveland Museum of Art
11150 East Blvd
Cleveland, OH 44106


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