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.