The basic appeal of the photographs in Karina Longworth’s new Hollywood Frame by Frame: The Unseen Silver Screen in Contact Sheets, 1951–1997 (Princeton Architectural Press) is easy to grasp. Any peek behind (as Joni Mitchell put it) the star-maker machinery is fun, doubly so when it’s a glimpse at a long-gone movie icon like Audrey Hepburn or James Dean. Immaculate costume and pose mix nicely with the visual clutter of a film set, and who doesn’t like seeing that?
Contact sheets, though, add another layer of interest. Not only do we see the movie being made; we see the photographer at work, too. If he or she’s been shooting fast, the repetitions almost constitute a stop-motion echo of the movie itself—kind of a rough draft, or even a proto-GIF. You can see, and almost hear, the ratchet-click of the hand and eye at work, shooting and winding, shooting and winding, as the lens roves the set—and gradually noses in on the one frame that captures it all. (This even before the photographer has marked up the sheet in grease pencil, flagging the best frames and excising the clunkers.) It’s a lesson to anyone who does anything creative: Even when you have the most beautiful subject in the world, it takes a whole bunch of tries to get anything right.