Ten months after the last Americans in Vietnam were evacuated from a Saigon rooftop in April 1975, Robert Pledge and David Burnett launched Contact Press Images out of New York City. Pledge, a French-British journalist specializing in African affairs, and Burnett, an American who became the last photographer contracted by Life magazine before its dissolution in 1972 to cover the war in Southeast Asia, had been introduced by their common friend, filmmaker and photographer Raymond Depardon in New York in the summer of 1973 when all three were associated with the agency Gamma. For both Burnett and Pledge, the war in Vietnam was formative in shaping their view of the new generation’s journalistic mission, and over the next three decades and beyond Contact photographers would respond to its lessons in ways both explicit and subliminal: reaffirming the existence of inalienable human rights, the necessity to question authority, and a sense that history itself was the true battleground.

I. AFTER VIETNAM: 1976-1988

Contact’s formation in February 1976 coincided with the Jimmy Carter presidency and the rise of international concern over human rights and the environment, as well as sweeping changes in the world of photojournalism. Largely eclipsed by color television, the standard-bearers of the black and white photo essay in the US, Life and Look magazines, had already folded, and Time, Newsweek and US News & World Report had yet to become the abundantly-color illustrated weeklies they are today.

© Alon Reininger                1976 © David Burnett                 1979 © Frank Fournier                1983

Yet to establish an agency largely dedicated to in-depth color features when the market for such stories in either color or black and white hardly existed, in which photographers would maintain their copyrights and function as auteurs in the mold of classic photo essayists Robert Capa and W. Eugene Smith, was Contact’s ultimate goal.

Pledge and Burnett set up offices on Central Park West in New York City with a handful of photographers, including Israeli-born Alon Reininger, who began to cover apartheid in South Africa before riots in Soweto drew international attention (1976), and AIDS in the US in the early eighties when the disease still had no name; Canadian Douglas Kirkland, famed for his images of movie icons; and Italian Gianfranco Gorgoni, who documented the New York art world.

They were soon joined by Rick Smolan, who went on to found the “Day in the Life” series along with an early Contact staffer, David Cohen, and Indian native Dilip Mehta, who in 1977 became one of the first photojournalists since Margaret Bourke-White's coverage of Mahatma Gandhi for Life in the late-forties to pierce the veils of Indian politics and society with his images of Indira Gandhi and Prime Minister Moraji Desai.

David Burnett, today one of the world’s most highly esteemed photojournalists, in many ways served as a model for others at the agency, mixing peripatetic travels around the world covering the major events of the day (e.g., the Iranian revolution in 1979, famine in Ethiopia in 1984, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989), and long term concentration on the powers in Washington, D.C. through nine presidencies, and the spirit of sport through six summer Olympic Games. Burnett also pioneered one of Contact’s hallmarks: the in-depth color feature shot on the fairly slow Kodachrome 64 film. Longer to process, but with finer grain, color and tone, the use of this film in addition to traditional black-and-white Tri-X to cover news signaled the agency’s philosophy of combining speed and quality, occasionally sacrificing immediate publication for something more permanent. A case in point was Burnett’s image of a Cambodian refugee mother and her child which although shot for Time could not be used by the magazine because of the two-day processing time but went on to win the World Press Photo Premier Award in 1979.

© Dilip Mehta                      1984 © Alexandra Avakian         1989 © Kenneth Jarecke             1991

The joining of American Annie Leibovitz in 1977 reaffirmed the agency’s conviction that there was more to history than “the news.” Leibovitz, then a young photographer with Rolling Stone in San Francisco, moved to New York along with the magazine that same year and was already on her way to redefining American portraiture – and the concept of celebrity – with her photographs of John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, Ray Charles, The Rolling Stones, and other cultural luminaries.

In its early years the young agency, which had a long-standing relationship with Time magazine then under the guidance of picture editor John Durniak, also syndicated the work of several of the magazine’s renown contract photographers: Eddie Adams (who was also a member), Michael Evans, Dirk Halstead, David Hume Kennerly, and Bill Pierce.

Others would round out the core of the small agency during its first years, including American Chuck Fishman, who documented the rise of the Solidarity in Poland in 1979; Cuban-born Jose Azel, who spent nearly a dozen years with the agency; Frank Fournier, who with four years of medical studies in his native France behind him deepened Contact’s humanist commitment with his haunting portrait of Omayra Sanchez, a thirteen-year-old victim of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano in Columbia in 1985, rape victims from the war in Bosnia, and AIDS orphans in Romania; and Kenneth Jarecke, a Nebraska native, who joined the agency at the age of twenty and established himself as a consummate political photographer during the Reagan years before publishing his book of unflinching personal black and white images from the first Gulf War during the George Bush, Sr. presidency (Just Another War, Bedrock Press 1992), some so disturbing that the American media uniformly refused to print them. The agency also soon received a fresh infusion of energy with the joining of Barbara Sadick, who became director of sales, and Aaron Schindler who assisted with exhibits and special projects.

© Annie Leibovitz              1994 © Stephen Dupont             1995 © Nadia Benchallal             1995

By the time it celebrated its ten-year anniversary in 1986, Contact’s reputation far exceeded its modest size. Its photographers’ images had graced the covers of Time, Newsweek, The New York Times Magazine in the United States, and had appeared in every major news publication around the world. The agency’s impact was highlighted in the exhibit, “Contact: Photojournalism since Vietnam.” Conceived and organized by Robert Pledge, the exhibition was itself a watershed event. Preceded by an audio/visual presentation at the Rencontres d’Arles in July 1986 and at the International Photography Congress at Maine’s Rockport Opera House the following month, the 135-image exhibit opened at the International Center of Photography in the spring of 1987 and went on to tour twenty-two cities in the US and Canada, and fourteen more in Europe. It subsequently became the first major showing of Western photography to appear in the People’s Republic of China, where it was viewed by tens of thousands of people a day at the Shanghai Museum of Art and at Beijing’s National Museum of History between October and November 1988 along with “Life Magazine: 150 Years of Photography” and “The World Press Photo: 30 Years of Photojournalism,” both also curated by Pledge. The crackdown by the Chinese government on democracy activists on Tienanman Square six months later, and the fall of the Berlin Wall that marked the end of the Cold War less than half a year afterwards, ushered Contact into a new phase of development and history.

II. AFTER THE WALL: 1989-2000

In the late eighties and early nineties, the agency broadened its membership with the addition of American picture editor Jeffrey D. Smith – who joined Contact as director of sales and became a few years later the agency’s executive director – and added to its ranks American photographer Lori Grinker who spent most of the years since her affiliation with the agency documenting the lives of twentieth century veterans around the world, published as the book Afterwar: Veterans From a World of Conflict (de.MO 2004); Swiss native Tomas Muscionico (introduced by his countryman and former Contact contributor, Koni Nordmann) who documented conflicts in the Balkans, South Africa and Chechnya, and the rise of world leaders in the nineties — including Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton – before turning his eye toward American fringe groups at the end of the millennium; Alexandra Avakian, who in addition to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 1989 coup in Moscow against Mikhail Gorbachev, produced intimate color essays on the first Palestinian intifada, reforms in Iran, the state of post-Ceaucescu Romania and newly independent Armenia, all shot for the National Geographic; and Canadian Greg Girard, who would document the enormous cultural and political changes in China, continuing Contact’s long interest in the People’s Republic that began with its association with Liu Heung Shing, author of China After Mao (Penguin 1983) in the late seventies.

© Yunghi Kim                    1996 © Lori Grinker                   1999 © Patrick Artinian              1997

Having established itself as a major player in the world of photojournalism, Contact’s second decade would now see the agency broaden its focus to include fields which had always been close to its mission: photographic exhibitions and human rights issues. The former was significantly aided by the office the agency established in Paris in 1990 to better maintain a European and international presence and which soon came under the direction of Dominique Deschavanne, a French journalist and picture editor. It was at this time that Contact began to represent select bodies of work for both distribution and exhibition. These included the archives of legendary Frenchman Gilles Caron, whose meteoric career was cut short when he went missing in Cambodia in 1970 at the age of thirty (the same age as Olivier Rebbotwhose archive Contact represents – when he was mortally wounded in El Salvador in 1980) and whose images were first presented as an audio/visual exhibit twenty years after his death at Arles in 1990; famed British war photographer Don McCullin, whose retrospective exhibition at Arles in 1992 and the following year at the Centre Nationale de la Photographie in Paris were organized by Contact; and the work of special contributor, Jane Evelyn Atwood, the Paris-based American documentary photographer whose seminal work on incarceration, Too Much Time, was curated by Contact president Robert Pledge at the Maison de la Villette in Paris in 1998. At this time Contact also started distributing the work of perhaps the most renown of all humanist photographers, Brazilian Sebastião Salgado, produced through the Paris-based agency Amazonas Images he co-founded with Lelia Wanick Salgado in 1994. The following year, Contact began to represent Li Zhensheng’s historic archive of images from China’s Cultural Revolution.

In this period Contact’s concern for human rights would bring it into association with many major government and non-governmental organizations, including Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders, with whom it presented an exhibit in Madrid and Barcelona in 1995-96 celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the organization; Amnesty International, whose 1998 calendar was comprised of images from photographers associated with Contact; and the United Nations, which presented Don McCullin’s Images of AIDS in southern Africa at its New York headquarters in 2001. Contact additionally produced the major exhibition “Keep the Light on Human Rights!” in December 1998 at Tokyo’s Fujita Vente Museum on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

© Gilles Caron                   1968 © Li Zhensheng                1966 © Don McCullin                  1968

After opening its offices in Paris, Contact was subsequently joined by Frenchmen Jean-Claude Coutausse, formerly of the Paris daily Libération, as well as by his replacement at the newspaper, Patrick Artinian; Italian Giorgia Fiorio, who in the following decade would produce six books on “Men”; Nadia Benchallal of France, who since 1989 has focused on Muslim women around the world; Australian Stephen Dupont, who became known for his images of conflict from East Timor, Afghanistan and Indonesia; and South Korean native Yunghi Kim, who covered stories of ethnic conflict in Rwanda and Kosovo, among many others.

From the outset, Contact, because of its international range of concern, was assisted in distributing its images by agents throughout the world. Through them Contact photographers achieved wide exposure in foreign publications in nearly thirty countries. Many of these agencies, such as Grazia Neri in Italy and IPJ in Japan have worked with Contact since its inception; others, such as Focus in Germany and Contacto in Spain, Contact helped launch.

As Contact Press Images approached the end of the millennium, and twenty-five years of recording history, the landscape it surveyed differed greatly from the one that existed when it began. Color photography, a novelty for covering news in 1976, had long since become the norm. Black and white, by contrast once the standard, now appeared innovative; and all film, black and white or color, was quickly being replaced by digital photography. Most small independent agencies had disappeared, swallowed by corporate behemoths. And 24/7 live television coverage and the internet had largely overshadowed the role traditionally ascribed to photography. But Contact, with members from a dozen countries, men and women of different origin, personality and culture, shooting in every format, from Leicas and Canon digital cameras to inexpensive Holga cameras, remained independent and committed to a spirit of activism and humanitarianism guided by its larger historical project.

III. AFTER 9/11: 2001-2006

For Contact Press Images, as for much of the world, September 11, 2001 inaugurated a new era, posing new challenges, introducing new faces, and overnight ushering in a new political and cultural landscape.

For Contact photographers and staff based in New York City, 9/11 was a day of both tremendous personal grief and professional activity, as captured in the book Eleven: Witnessing the World Trade Center 1974-2001 (Rizzoli International/Universe). Unintentionally reaffirming photography’s unique place in the world, with airports closed for six days the disaster simultaneously demonstrated that new technologies, especially the internet and the digital transmission of images, were permanent features of the modern world.

© Kristen Ashburn         2002 © Sean Hemmerle           2001 © Sean Hemmerle                      2003

To manage the agency’s transition to this new technological theater while maintaining continuity with its past, Contact established a digital domain, including a fully updated website, and scanning and transmitting facilities, run by Dustin Ross in New York and Tim Mapp in Paris.

The so-called “war on terror” and its consequences became an obvious preoccupation of the agency after the destruction of the World Trade Center, and many of its photographers, including Australian Stephen Dupont, South Korean native Yunghi Kim, British writer and photographer Nick Danziger, and famed British war photographer Don McCullin, subsequently worked in Iraq and/or Afghanistan, as did two new members, Americans Kristen Ashburn, winner of the Canon's 2004 Female Photojournalist Award given annually by the French Association of Women Journalists (AFJ) for her work on AIDS in southern Africa, and Sean Hemmerle, who has been documenting the effects of American military might since 9/11.

In a broader sense, the new global conflict was also considered by French native Nadia Benchallal in her decade-long work on women in the Muslim world, American Alexandra Avakian, whose story on Muslims in America was produced for the National Geographic, and Italian Giorgia Fiorio in her long-term project on “spirituality” around the world, of which Islam is a major component.

Other additions to the Contact roster in these years included veteran British photographer Charles Ommanney, a contract photographer for Newsweek magazine who covered the Bush White House, and Americans Edward Keating, a former staff photographer for The New York Times, and Justin Guariglia, who specializes in Asia.

Yet despite considerable changes, the agency continued to be anchored by the work of its veterans, including agency co-founder David Burnett, Indian Dilip Mehta, French native Frank Fournier, Israeli-born Alon Reininger, American Kenneth Jarecke, and photographic legends Annie Leibovitz of the US, who produced Women in 2001, American Music in 2003, and A Photographer’s Life 990-2005 in 2006 (all Random House), and Brazil’s Sebastião Salgado, whose book, The End of Polio (Bulfinch), appeared in 2003.

© Kristen Ashburn        2005 © Stephen Dupont         2004 © David Burnett             2006

Nearing its thirtieth year, Contact Press Images continued to adapt to new realities while maintaining its focus on long-term photographer-driven projects, many of which resulted in books. Delayed by the events of 2001, but finally published in 2003 was the historic Red-Color News Soldier: A Chinese Photographer’s Odyssey Through the Cultural Revolution by Li Zhensheng (Phaidon 2003), which was drawn from negatives safeguarded for nearly forty years, edited by Robert Pledge, and written by Li and Jacques Menasche, a New York-based writer who also collaborated on Eleven, and has since worked closely with Contact and many of its photographers on various books, articles, exhibitions, and special projects. Since translated into six languages, Red-Color News Soldier was the recipient of 2004’s Overseas Press Club of America's Olivier Rebbot "Best Reporting from Abroad" Award, and has been exhibited in museums throughout the world. Pledge and Menasche subsequently worked together on Lori Grinker’s major book, Afterwar: Veterans from a World in Conflict (de.MO 2004), her fifteen-year project documenting the lives of frontline veterans of the twentieth century.

On the occasion of its 30th anniversary, Contact unveiled a major new collective exhibition, “Contact/s: The Art of Photojournalism.” Featuring thirty twelve-foot high contact sheets, the exhibit debuted at the Pingyao International Photography Festival in Shanxi province, China, in September 2006.

One of the last small independent photographic agencies still in existence, with just over twenty active photographers from over a dozen countries, and the archives of another dozen, the agency’s mission has remained constant: to produce in-depth photographic essays of pressing global concern instead of “disposable” news, to pose difficult questions rather than provide facile answers, and above all to make important and lasting images – always with history in mind.

Contact: 25 Years 100 Images

More about Contact 2001-2005