Many of Bourke-White’s contact sheets, which disclose some of the numerous shots she took while trying to compose the photographic image she wanted to capture, remain in her archives at Syracuse University’s Special Collections Research Center.
These documents offer an invaluable glimpse of the photographer at work, suggesting the efforts she took to win her subjects’ trust and coax them into a pose, her desire to take a wide array of shots while working on a story, and her insistence on photographing particular phenemonon as they unfolded in time. As she wrote in The Nation magazine in 1936,
The art of pointing a camera at an object does not transfer it automatically to the back of the photographer’s little black box. The illumination, modeling, choice of boundaries, [and] focal length of lenses control the transfer of an object to a sheet of sensitized celluloid, but the major control is the photographer’s point of view.
The four contact sheets included in this exhibit–of work at a prison farm, of a protest meeting, of shantytown youth, and of the people of South Africa behind barbed wire –represent only a small sample of those available. But they convey the conscious deliberation with which Bourke-White sought to document what she witnessed. These images also remind us of what her editors at Life chose not to publish.
All contact sheets courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries.