Tuesday, October 6, 2015


This is actually a precursor to a somewhat longer essay I'm working on, which should position me properly as a laughingstock.

Here we have Robert Frank's application for a Guggenheim Fellowship, which ultimately led to The Americans:

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.

At any rate, I found this on the web, and the most likely thing is that it was copied from some reliable source more or less accurately.

Here we see that Frank had a project in mind, he had an idea, a vision. Yep, pretty broad and squishy, and he admits right up front that it's gonna evolve and change as the project proceeds. And, I suppose it did. There certainly seems to be more in the book than the proposal talks of. And, we see the results which are, as noted, a sharp blow to the head.

A commenter on my previous post noted that Frank took 28,000-odd photos to make the book. Were he shooting randomly, my rough estimates are that he'd have gotten about 30-50 "good ones" in the sense of a good competition-worthy single frame. Of note is that the book contains a lot of things that would die in competition. No ribbons for Frank. Be that as it may, it's clear, to this viewer, that Frank was seeing issues of race, issues of class, political, social, economic issues. I do not think that he would have spotted and documented these things, these things in their essentially American versions, without approaching it with a plan.

I don't know how well one would do shooting "issues of race" if you just waved the camera around, clicking away. I do know "competition ready" comes out somewhere around 1:1000, so my best guess is that excellent social insight frames might clock in around the same? That's just a guess. Anyways, to assume that he was able to just shoot "stuff" the way an enthusiast does, is to assume about a 1:338 ratio. Which strikes me as awfully high. In truth, I believe that shooting in this way produces a 0:infinity ratio of the precisely stated observations that appear in The Americans. Not every frame in the book is impossible, but there are some doozies in there which simply could not be done without being mindful in the way I mean.

In short, I assert that he was mindful in his work, he had a plan, an idea, a theme, and he held it in his mind as he shot. I contend that there's no other way the book could have happened.

Contrast this much of HCB's best work. He too was mindful, I think, but in a deeply different way. He strove to be connected with the moment, and he worked the scene, the situation, the moment (his contact sheets bear this out) searching for the right moment. From time to time, he found it. But, he seems in those days not to have had a larger plan, his goal was the individual frame perfectly summarizing the gestalt within the frame.

HCB's work, to be blunt, would be terrible and uninteresting except for his total mastery of the frame. The "decisive moment" photos are each individually very very good. Taken all together, they are exactly the sum of their parts, no more, and no less. Frank's work, taken frame by frame, is somewhere between banal and puzzling, with occasional "hey, that's good", but taken together they are vastly greater than the sum of the parts. The Americans is not a collection of puzzling frames with a lot of stuff out of focus, with an occasional pretty good one. Those are its parts, certainly, but the book is far more.

Frank and HCB were both mindful in their own radically different ways. Frank's way is more reproducible (HCB, honestly, appears to have been sui generis, nobody else really seems to be able to do that thing), and reflects the way plenty of artists work.

The vast majority of enthusiasts are, at best, striving to be mindful in the way HCB was, striving to master this individual frame and the elements within it. Since they're not HCB, the results are typically somewhere between awful and OK. In no cases will the portfolio ever add up to more than the simple sum. At any rate, I have never seen a body of work which simultaneously seems to be much more than its parts, and which I know to have had the theme/idea imposed after shooting.

Frank's way also aligns with the way good professional photography is done. The creative brief defines the theme, the idea. The photographer works the theme, the idea, and attempts to make pictures that reflect it.

I might or might not be able to shoot your TiG welders to look efficient, reliable, but it would take me three visits and a week, at least, and it's even odds I couldn't do it at all. Kirk Tuck can roll in of an afternoon and do it, time after time. That's why he gets paid to shoot, and I don't.


  1. Arts and Crafts.
    Some folks are mighty good at the craft, but their images don't have any soul, done convey an emotion, or a message, or expound a theory. (Tacking on meaning after the fact doesn't count, and won't hold to scrutiny). Skilled but without content. Craft but not art.
    (FWIW not limited to photography, but architecture, music, movies... All easier said than done, but you know it when you see it.)

  2. Maybe you are reading a bit too much from the self promoting writing from artists. Sure, Robert Frank had to write a nice text to get a grant and convince the payers that he had a coherent project. On the opposite, Henri Cartier-Bresson wrote a nice coffee table book and pretended it was about pictures taken in passing and in hiding (that would be a literal translation of the original French title: "Images à la sauvette", known in English as "The decisive moment"). And Vivian Maier never wrote a thing, so we will never know.

    I think the truth lies in the middle. Nobody takes 28000 pictures randomly without a project, at least not on film. It is just that the projects were different: Frank was interested in producing a series of pictures documenting what he believed was important (that America was not the superior country post war Europeans believed it to be) and Cartier-Bresson had the idea to produce a set of paintings in the form of a book. Before the book, Cartier-Bresson was a reporter and produced images in coherent series, so he certainly could master that process and only had the idea of "decisive moment" later on.

    And while I am at it: Ming Thein also produces series of images within a coherent project: convince his followers that he is a photographic genius. That is his only message, but it is a message nevertheless.

    Where you may have a point is that it appears that some internet camera users have this idea of just going out and wait till a random event will present them with the perfect picture, just because they pressed the release at the decisive moment. That indeed will not work.

    The only way is indeed to start with something you want to say and set up to take pictures to illustrate it. That is what Frank, Cartier-Bresson and all other successful artists did. But photography is a clumsy process for doing so (as opposed to, say, writing a book or painting images, where the artist is responsible for everything), and there is a large portion of randomness. Because taking 28000 pictures to end up with 83 means you have 27917 pictures which did not make it.

  3. Another remark: indeed most internet photoforums users do not appear to take pictures with an idea of a message beforehand. But it is relatively easy to find out internet sites with photographers who have something to say and present a coherent project.

    Some examples:



    Maybe you need to adjust your bookmarks to sites discussing art and not cameras. You will be less frustrated. ;)

  4. I have no bookmarks! I just remember a few URLs!

    Anyways. Obviously I am wrestling with an idea or two here which I'm still working to get a handle on.

    The two aspects which strike me as relevant to the whatever-it-is I am groping for are: portfolio which is greater than the sum of its parts; pictures which can only really work in one portfolio.

    My feeling is that if you can simply remix your pile of pictures and extract various portfolios from them, you've failed. Which isn't really true, but I do think it's true and reasonable to say that pictures which you can plug equally well into a handful of portfolios are distinctly different from pictures that really live only in a single body of work.

    Thanks for the comments and links. This is a work in progress!

    1. I think you are taking this in reverse.

      All meaningful projects start with an idea. For Robert Frank, it was "I want to show post war Europeans that mighty America is not what they believe it to be". For Ming Thein, it might be "I need to show my fans that I can produce nice individual abstract pictures". Whatever.

      That one produces a coherent set where individual pictures do not work taken apart from the book and the other produces a loose collection of frames barely acceptable as wall decor is a consequence, not a cause.

    2. I suspect that we agree more than is apparent, or perhaps we're talking past each other a little bit. Your second paragraph is in perfect agreement with me, so it really comes down, I guess, to what the difference is between the one idea and the other.

      I call the first one "an idea" and then second one "not an idea" but that's a bit arbitrary ;)

      I think I shall let this rest now. You are welcome to have the last word, but I feel as if we've mined out the best stuff at this point and will likely wind up going in circles. But don't worry! I will post more on this theme, and we can have another go at it with COMPLETE NEW terms I just made up!

  5. You confirmed something I have been saying for a long time (and have been criticized for):

    "Frank was interested in producing a series of pictures documenting what he believed was important (that America was not the superior country post war Europeans believed it to be)."

    Frank was a disgruntled European whose photographs were carefully selected to do a hatchet job on the country which had saved Europe twice in less than 30 years.

    1. I'm not sure it was a "hatchet job" as such, since that speaks to Frank's private motivations.

      Certainly he was interested in presenting a view of America as seen with an unblinking outsider's eye. He was not alone in perceiving problems, is seeing that perhaps this isn't quite the country described in the brochure. Emmett Till was murdered in 1955. Eisenhower told us a few years later that perhaps we should keep an eye on the military-industrial complex.

      The postwar bloom was in general coming off the rose. Frank contributed to this, I suppose, but he was not alone.