The Contact Sheet Comes Out of the Closet

The photographer’s secret rough draft is now on museum walls.

I miss contact sheets. I miss those grids of small photos that show you exactly what’s on a roll of developed film. I miss them so much that now, when I take digital pictures, I don’t delete any: I download everything from my camera to my computer to get lots of thumbnail-size images—some blurry, some not; some memorable, some not; some in series, some not. There they are, rows upon rows on my screen. A virtual contact sheet. And yet nothing like a contact sheet.


The contact sheet is the most direct, intimate thing in film-based photography. There’s nothing virtual about it. After light hits the film in your camera and after the exposed film is developed, you create a contact sheet by bringing the negative in direct contact with a sheet of photographic paper and shining light on it again. The end result is usually a grid of images, or really a stack of strips, small prints of what you shot, exactly the size of the negatives. Adding to the physicality of this object, photographers often draw directly on their contact sheets with an orange or red crayon, marking up the images they plan to enlarge and print.

If three museum shows are any indication, I don’t think I’m alone in my nostalgia for this object.

Click here for a slide-show essay about contact-sheet art.