The public images of celebrities are micromanaged at least as much as their personas are. We were never supposed to come across those unflattering photos of Beyoncé from last year’s Super Bowl, for instance, which is why it felt bizarre that we did see the ordinarily impeccable pop royal in outtake mode. In the digital, stars-are-just-like-us tabloid era, of course, it’s become harder to maintain image control, but there was a time when it was rarer for the public to be able to peek behind the manufactured veneer. Now, a series of vintage contact sheets is providing added dimension to the heavily polished celebrities of Golden Age Hollywood.
“For decades, contact sheets were the main vehicle through which movie stars could exercise their right to approve or reject all photos of themselves seen by the public,” says Karina Longworth, film critic and author of the new book, Hollywood Frame By Frame. Although ostensibly used by on-set photographers in order to review and edit their work, contact sheets once performed multiple tasks that might now be farmed out to marketing and publicity departments. For our purposes, they also provide an at-a-glance hidden story of famous faces and films.
Longworth was contacted by the publisher Ilex in late 2012 about working on the project. The company had located a number of vintage contact sheets, and was looking for a writer willing to put the work in to do them justice. At the outset, she knew next to nothing about contact sheets, beyond the fact of their existence and basic usage. Over the course of her research, however, she became an expert and took a lot of interesting detours, including a deep dive into fascinating stories about Raquel Welch that contextualized her iconic pin-up poster photo, taken on the set of One Million Years B.C.
“I was impressed by the overall idea that these sheets capture previously unseen narratives, the narratives told by whole rolls of film, outtakes and all, and not just the single image selected for massive retouching and editing,” Longworth says. “These contact sheets reveal the process of getting to the one valuable publicity image, and thus often contain things that are considered irrelevant or even damaging to that unified image which the studio wanted to sell.”
Many of the book’s contact sheets came from MPTV, a nonprofit that preserves the work of Hollywood still photographers, as well as archives like the Harry Ransom Center, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and Getty. Throughout the book, the author explains the ubiquity of contact sheets on Hollywood movie sets for decades, and explains how they became almost extinct way before the digital era began in earnest.
Have a look at some of the images from films like Rear Window, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Raging Bull in the slides above.