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Robert Frank, The Americans, and grant-writing

Pho­tog­ra­ph­er Robert Frank is known for a few things, pri­mar­i­ly The Amer­i­cans, a ground-break­ing book of pho­tog­ra­phy pub­lished in the late 50's. He is also known for avant-garde film-mak­ing, e.g., Pull My Daisy, and his nev­er-released Rolling Stones doc­u­men­tary with an unprint­able name.We checked out SFMOMA's 50th anniver­sary ret­ro­spec­tive of The Amer­i­cans today, and I was aston­ished at anoth­er of Frank's skills: Grant-writ­ing. In order to fund the gath­er­ing of the pho­tos that became The Amer­i­cans, he applied for a Guggen­heim Fel­low­ship. I've past­ed his clear, sim­ple, two-part essay below.

Part 1: Frank's brief summary of the proposal

To pho­to­graph freely through­out the Unit­ed States, using the minia­ture cam­era exclu­sive­ly. The mak­ing of a broad, volu­mi­nous pic­ture record of things Amer­i­can, past and present. This project is essen­tial­ly the visu­al study of a civ­i­liza­tion and will include cap­tion notes; but it is only part­ly doc­u­men­tary in nature: one of its aims is more artis­tic than the word doc­u­men­tary implies.

Part 2: The full statement of intent

I am apply­ing for a Fel­low­ship with a very sim­ple inten­tion: I wish to con­tin­ue, devel­op and widen the kind of work I already do, and have been doing for some ten years, and apply it to the Amer­i­can nation in gen­er­al. I am sub­mit­ting work that will be seen to be doc­u­men­ta­tion — most broad­ly speak­ing. Work of this kind is, I believe, to be found car­ry­ing its own visu­al impact with­out much work expla­na­tion. The project I have in mind is one that will shape itself as it pro­ceeds, and is essen­tial­ly elas­tic. The mate­r­i­al is there: the prac­tice will be in the photographer's hand, the vision in his mind. One says this with some embar­rass­ment but one can­not do less than claim vision if one is to ask for con­sid­er­a­tion. "The pho­tograph­ing of Amer­i­ca" is a large order — read at all lit­er­al­ly, the phrase would be an absur­di­ty. What I have in mind, then, is obser­va­tion and record of what one nat­u­ral­ized Amer­i­can finds to see in the Unit­ed States that sig­ni­fies the kind of civ­i­liza­tion born here and spread­ing else­where. Inci­den­tal­ly, it is fair to assume that when an obser­vant Amer­i­can trav­els abroad his eye will see fresh­ly; and that the reverse may be true when a Euro­pean eye looks at the Unit­ed States. I speak of the things that are there, any­where and every­where — eas­i­ly found, not eas­i­ly select­ed and inter­pret­ed. A small cat­a­log comes to the mind's eye: a town at night, a park­ing lot, a super­mar­ket, a high­way, the man who owns three cars and the man who owns none, the farmer and his chil­dren, a new house and a warped clap­board house, the dic­ta­tion of taste, the dream of grandeur, adver­tis­ing, neon lights, the faces of the lead­ers and the faces of the fol­low­ers, gas tanks and postof­fices and back­yards. The uses of my project would be soci­o­log­i­cal, his­tor­i­cal and aes­thet­ic. My total pro­duc­tion will be volu­mi­nous, as is usu­al­ly the case when the pho­tog­ra­ph­er works with minia­ture film. I intend to clas­si­fy and anno­tate my work on the spot, as I pro­ceed. Ulti­mate­ly the file I shall make should be deposit­ed in a col­lec­tion such as the one in the Library of Con­gress. A more imme­di­ate use I have in mind is both book and mag­a­zine pub­li­ca­tion.

Frank was award­ed a fel­low­ship, which amount­ed to $3,600, and he used this to trav­el in a long loop around the US in 1955–6. That "more imme­di­ate use" that he refers to in the final sen­tence turned into The Amer­i­cans, a stun­ning doc­u­ment that is every bit as inter­est­ing 50 years lat­er. The exhi­bi­tion is cap­tured in an extend­ed ver­sion of The Amer­i­cans, includ­ing con­tact sheets and com­men­tary.