In 1959, an impromptu discussion between two global leaders changed, in many ways, the course of history. The above photo, seen by millions all over Russia, the United States, and the world, outraged and emboldened citizens, altered opinions, and potentially even swayed votes.
The photo was taken during a debate between Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and U.S .Vice President Richard Nixon in Moscow’s Sokolniki Park, where the U.S. was having an National Exhibition to show the benefits of a capitalist society. During a tour of the displays given to Khrushchev by Nixon, a hearty dialogue began between the two on the merits of Communism versus Capitalism, and few punches were spared. Because most of the conversation took place near a model American kitchen, the dialogue has come to be known as the “Kitchen Debates.”
The aftermath of the debate and its subsequent coverage in the media, including the broadcast of the debates in full, strengthened both countries’ resolves and helped put Nixon, who many now saw as a hard-nosed diplomat, into the White House. The above photo, by master photographer Elliott Erwitt, showed Nixon in this light, unafraid to use strong physical gestures to get his point across.
But the iconic photo almost didn’t happen. “By sheer luck, I guessed correctly where they would turn up next,” Erwitt says in the documentary “Contacts.”
25 years later, the iconic image is back in the spotlight. Erwitt’s contact sheet — a piece of photographic paper containing thumbnails of all the exposures from a specific roll of film — was recently part of Magnum’s show of famous contact sheets at Manhattan’s Milk Gallery.
The sheets, which were used by photographers and photo editors to make image selections before computers and digital photography rendered them obsolete, are treasure troves of information. They show outtakes and behind-the-scenes images from a specific photoshoot or event, helping the viewer to gain a better sense of the process and the mindset of the photographer.
(Double click to zoom in and explore the contact sheet in more detail, or click here for an enlarged version on mobile.)
“By sheer luck, I guessed correctly where they would turn up next, which was at a display of a modern kitchen behind a barrier,” Erwitt says in the documentary.
MAGNUM Photos / Elliott Erwitt
“I rushed to it to have an unobstructed view as they approached the rail. Luck was with me. With a direct view and no one to push and shove, I circumnavigated Nixon and Khrushchev, finding my best range. From then on, it was like shooting fish in a barrel.”
“But how pictures can lie. The illusion is one of Nixon standing up to the Soviets, where the reality is an argument about cabbage soup versus red meat.”
Interestingly enough, the final image chosen was the first one on Erwitt’s roll.
To see more contact sheets from Magnum’s archives, be sure to check out their book.
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