From a printer's standpoint one of the more interesting aspects is the ability to pry into another's contact sheets. They have their way of leveling the playing field. Even the greatest of practitioners fail over 95 percent of the time but even so, the near misses can be sobering - just check out the 80 some of Robert Frank's contacts reproduced in the Looking In tome from the National Gallery.
I have students who, after developing film the first few times on their own, jump straight to prints without making a contact - editing from the negatives. In my experience, the worst photographs look the best as negatives and vice versa so the contact is always a necessity and not only as a record of images. Gilles Peress used to say that they allow the ability to "recreate the walk;" a way of following process and perhaps understanding instincts, allowing potential insight for honing. I like that idea that contacts represent not only a chain of images but the ebb and flow of instinct. Even some things can be gleaned from bad photographs. Some, like myself however, guard their contacts as if secreting away a stash of porn - as if chance viewing by another would amount to being exposed, risk embarrassment, or discovered to be a fraud.
There are many uses for contact prints and a book I recently picked up examines a mysterious set of 61 "working collages" - essentially reconfigured contact sheets from the grandfather of German New Objectivity, Karl Blossfeldt. Karl Blossfeldt: Working Collages published by MIT in 2001 presents all of these sheets offering a new way of perceiving his life's work.
These sheets are mysterious because Blossfeldt during his lifetime apparently never mentioned their existence to anyone let alone explain his method or intended use. They are not typical contact sheets on the whole but cut up and reorganized groupings of his now famous plant studies. From a historical standpoint, many questions arise; were these used to categorize various species or types (not always)? Were they used to coordinate negatives and prints (the numeric notations belie this)? Were they used to create a working model for planning books (could be)? Or, as the essayist Ulrike Meyer Stump asks, "could they be showing us a forerunner of conceptual art?"
Created between 1926 and 1928, the "collages" contain all of the images that later appeared in Art Forms in Nature, his book from 1928. The numeric systems and notes often contradict the various theories as to their intended use. The thought that these represent types is sketchy since Blossfeldt often dissected his specimens into unnatural shape and form, he didn't seem as interested in finding archetypal plant life. From this we may presume compared to the final images that these sheets reveal groupings which might be reducing the objects down to their most basic decorative design.
Seeing these apart from guessing Blossfeldt's intentions, the sheets, like in other grid systems, force the individual images to give way to formal arrangement and more sculptural dimensions. We are much less interested in the subjects but with the new order and effect of the system that has taken over. The visual experience taken as a whole brings to mind scrapbooks and other imperfect orderings or material where there is both elements of the personal mixed with the public. They tease our desire to make sense of method - why some are cyanotype and others are in sepia - and at the same time we accept the whole as a beautiful and unique unified work of light and shade, form and content set upon a cardboard backdrop.
Richter had his Atlas and Lewitt his photogrids. Divorced from their practicalities, sketchbooks, guides for process, source material reveal undeniable works of art. This book begs the question of where that "art" first appeared.