“Proof” at CMA Looks at Past Era of Photography

Fri 2/7-Sun 4/12

The advent of easily accessible digital photography, which virtually replaced film photography in the mid ’00s, changed a lot of things about the way people take, share and view photos. The average person has a pretty good idea about most of those.

One that might not spring to their minds, because it was something an amateur was less likely to deal with, was the disappearance of proof sheets, those sheets of paper featuring true-to-size images of all the negatives on a roll of film. These were used as a tool for professionals and serious amateurs to study their shots and pick out the ones they wanted to enlarge (The average amateur, of course, had their film developed at a drugstore or similar location and usually had album-sized prints made of every exposure). Now there are no more negatives and photographers can upload and examine every shot on their computer screen.

While occasionally the proof sheet itself was used as an artistic end product or a variation in an ad, mostly it was just a tool, filed away for reference. The late Cleveland collector Mark Schwartz assembled a collection of these proof sheets, which help shed light on a photographer’s shooting process — how much they shoot, how they vary their angles and exposures, how they crop their photos, what they choose and don’t choose as the final image. Among the major photographers he collected were groundbreaking street photography Robert Frank, experimental photographer Harry Callahan, studio masters Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, and celebrity portrait photographer Philippe Halsman, known for having gotten convinced figures ranging from Marilyn Monroe to Richard Nixon to jump for his camera.

PROOF: Photography in the Era of the Contact Sheet, opening this week at the Cleveland Museum of Art, features approximately 180 sheets from Schwartz’s collection. The show runs through Sun 4/12. It’s free.


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