By Tanya Pike
One of my responsibilities when I worked at the Bluffton News was to develop the black and white film that the editor shot every week. That was back in the days before digital cameras were the photographer's tools of choice. After winding the film into the canisters in total darkness, the process of developing each roll took about 30 minutes.
It was always a somewhat stressful half hour for me.
What if I'd mixed up the chemicals for development incorrectly? Or what I forgot to set the timer and there was no way to know the precise measurements for development with any accuracy? What if the fixer was old and didn't stabilize the images into the film?
If anything went wrong, there was no recourse. A week's worth of photos would be ruined - the events were over and done with and there was no way to recreate them. Even worse, there would be an issue of the small town weekly news that had no photographs.
It was always a relief to unwind those spools after a half hour and see that there were indeed images on that film.
The next step in the process was to create a contact sheet. A contact sheet is just a simple picture of all the images on that particular roll of film.
Contact sheets aren't meant to be pretty. They just to give you an idea of which pictures are worth printing and which might need to be burned (more light) or dodged (less light) in some areas. They also tell you which pictures are just so bad they aren't even worth considering.
After marking all the photographs that he wanted printed for the newspaper in red wax pencil, I filed the editor's contact sheets in a large three ring binder. Adorning the shelves of the darkroom were literally years worth of contact sheets - each one freezing the images and memories in place forever.
For the most part, contact sheets have disappeared from the photographer's landscape. With the advent of the digital camera, the photographer can decide instantly if a shot is headed for the garbage or whether it's a winner. There is no longer a development process and, for the most part, the magic of seeing images appear before your eyes in the darkroom setting is a thing of the past.
Still, I find contact sheets fascinating. They are like a spyglass into the thought processes of the photographer. The shots are in order. You can see how the photographer played with the subject. You can see all the photographs that will never make the cut and you can quickly pick out the single gem of a shot that made the photographer's day.
Lately, I've been thinking about life as a series of contact sheets. Tiny little moments, frozen into images. There are periods in which it seems that every little cell in the row is filled with precise images - perfectly focused, crisp and full of possibility and energy. And then there are times that feel like a terrible drought of energy and creativity. In these times the cells on the sheets are foggy, out of focus, composed badly or just uninspiring. Of course, dry spells don't last forever. Soon the energy starts to return and the shots that document my existence begin to waken again.
When I visualize the rows and rows of binders holding all the contact sheets that would compose my life, I see all these periods of good and bad in kind of a linear context. I'm the kind of person who believes that good will always outweigh bad over the long haul.
If there's one thing that working with contact sheets has taught me it's that, when viewed all together, it's the rows and rows of crummy shots that make that one serendipitous moment captured in film a miracle of thanksgiving.
You can read more of Tanya's writing at her blog www.45Pines.blogspot.com