I started taking pictures in Berkeley, CA. during the summer of 1980, with a Nikomat FT2 and a 55/3.5 Micro-Nikkor given by my father (I still have both). He had the habit of systematically buying a few fresh rolls for every shoot (mostly birds and reptiles) so, when I stayed with him, there was a full “ice box” of slide films for me to burn through. Truth be told, my father was so happy about my interest in photography (mostly cars and trucks at first) that he gladly paid for all the processing bills!

Nikomat FT2 and a 55/3.5 Micro-Nikkor
My Nikomat FT2 and a 55/3.5 Micro-Nikkor

When I got into shooting black and white film in 1983, the big professional Parisian labs offered “La Planche Agrandie 40×50”, a 16×20 inch blown-up proof sheet. Of course, this requires a lot more work than a standard contact sheet, so the price was blown-up accordingly!

As I wasn’t getting any prints made at the time, I liked the larger size of image:

Oversize BW proof sheet
A 16×20″ proof sheet from 1989, shot at FIAC fair in the the Grand Palais, Paris, France

In 1993 I began working in a small custom processing and print lab. We were dip’n’dunking C41, printint RA4 and Ilfochrom, all with german made Autopan machines and Durst 1200 enlargers. It was mainly fashion/advertising oriented, and I could experiment and produce a lot at no cost (even films were given to me).

After I started using a Fuji GA645 Professional camera in 1996, I soon discovered that its larger image size over 35mm film allowed a simple contact-sheet to be a good storytelling medium. Soon, these contact sheets became my go-to birthday gift, or simply a souvenir from a good time with friends.

My pair of Fuji rangefinders: The GA645W and GA645i

On those occasions, I’d shoot an entire roll, all at the same orientation and no repetitions, generally with some sort of theme, and with the mindset that it’d end up being a single visual object relating a moment. I’d then process the film, make a bunch of proof-sheets that I’d fold in half, close with tape, and mail out to the people originally involved with just their name and address. Being a printer has always fueled my incentive to stick a stamp on any strip test or bad print and turn it into postal art…

Postal art!

Later, I applied the same approach to capture the general atmosphere of a place: one big image made of 16 small ones, showing many different aspects of a house, a workshop, a garden, etc… then placing the whole roll in my Durst 184/CLS2000 8×10″ enlarger to make 20×24″ prints.

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My “16 frames on 1 film in 16 minutes in 1 place” concept followed naturally.

Since I alternate interior, exterior, dark, light, nature, building, close-up, wide view, for each photo, I first make a little scouting tour of the premises, trying to anticipate the shots. Then I have to do it quickly while it’s all still fresh in my mind, which makes it more of an artistic performance. Hence the 16-1-16-1…

Of course, as burning and dodging options are very limited at the printing stage, properly exposing each frame is crucial!

In October 2020, a friend who already has a few of my prints and really likes my “regard” invited me to Lorient (in Bretagne, west of France) to photograph an estate that has been in her family for over three centuries. All the pictures they have of that place are either old, black and white, academic, or simply bad, and don’t reflect how she sees it.

16 frames on 1 film in 16 minutes in 1 place
Domaine de Kervéléan, Morbihan, France – 3
16 frames on 1 film in 16 minutes in 1 place
Domaine de Kervéléan, Morbihan, France – 3

I spent three nice days there with them: kids, relatives, dog, etc… and shot fifteen rolls. Three of them in my “16-1-16-1” style, one set vertically, one horizontaly, and one at more or less 45°, all with Fuji GA645 cameras (still my favorite). Another assignment I gave myself was to replicate some of the old photos they had in the house, so that they have updated versions, showing how things are today, sort of a before/after comparison…

Mission accomplished, total success. She ordered 20 prints for her and the family Christmas presents !

~ Marc

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About the author

Marc Upson

1965: started life in the US of A. 1970: imported in France. 1983: started professional life playing bass in a band. 1987: started working in an architecture office. 1993: started working in a small professional...

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13 Comments

 

  1. I did this a few times as a lab tech in the 1990’s but I’d forgotten all about it.
    I’m going to have another go myself after reading this. Great article!!

  2. These are really great. Great way to tell a story visually, the ultimate editorial photography challenge. I love the shots of the French estate, thanks for sharing.

  3. Wow love that idea and also the great results. Looks like a perfect way to order the pictures from one trip / happening together as a perfect gift.
    Thanks for sharing!

  4. This is extremely similar (yet- not identical) to my B & W (photography unpluged) “contacts” [contact-prints] PROJECT to tell a story on each comics-like print, but using a few different cameras in medium format (for example: “describing” a space of one place (& interior is preferred for this idea) with use of: 6×6 fisheye, 2 ×6×6 stereo-pair [SPUTNIK], 6×9 pinhole, 6×12 panorama and eventually 6×4,5 – for portraits… So the final product is going to be not just one contact-sheet to tell the story of one place, but a set of four (or 5) showing the same space (in the same time) but seen through four very different cameras.

  5. Very enjoyable way of looking at images. I’ve printed contact sheets but only B/W. I love looking at them closely and also try to form a sequence as I love taking photos in sequences. I guess colors really gives a different perspective with the contact sheet.

  6. Hi Marc,
    I remember a few labs here in Connecticut (mostly located in Fairfield County/NYC area) making these ‘enlarged contact sheets.’ Checking the logs in the way back machine it seems they were most active from the mid-1970’s through the 1990’s. I don’t know who is still in business.
    Have you ever heard of a technique called ‘contact sheet mosaics’? I found it in a book by John Hedgecoe called ‘The Photographer’s Handbook.’ You mount your camera on a tripod and shoot your film in an indexed, previsualized
    manner. Your big contact sheets would be perfect for this technique.
    -Dan

    1. Hello,
      I couldn’t find anything online about that. Interestingly, the only result that comes up with “contact sheet mosaic” is this page!
      If it’s on a tripod, is it some sort of stop motion?

  7. Looking great! Not mentioned in the article, but I assume you are using the RA-4 process for color printing your negatives with the enlarger? I always found the RA-4 process quite tedious to do especially since its chemicals don’t last long.