Photographer Robert Frank arrived in New York from Switzerland in 1947 and took up a job at Harper’s Bazaar. There, he quickly realized that he did not enjoy fashion photography. In New York, he quickly became involved in an art scene that included Beat poets (Jack Kerouac would later write a foreword for Frank’s book) and abstract-expressionist painters and befriended Walker Evans, then the picture editor at Fortune.
Evans would become a mentor, friend, traveling companion, and occasional employer. In 1955, he hired Frank to photograph for Fortune magazine the “Congressional” express train between New York and Washington, D.C. Since 1885, the Pennsylvannia Railroad had run a passenger train between New York City and Washington, D.C., with limited stops along the route, a route which became a favorite train for businessmen and politicians.
The photos were published in Fortune (November 1955), accompanied by text by Evans:
This photoessay became the basis of Frank’s application to the Guggenheim grant for a somewhat vague project to produce an authentic contemporary document of American life. Frank’s application was thought to be at least partially ghostwritten by Evans and supported by letters from Evans, Edward Steichen, Alexey Brodovitch, Alexander Liberman, and Meyer Schapiro. What Frank had in mind, he (or Evans) wrote was “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. . . . 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 grant enabled Frank to traveled more than thirty states and 10,000 miles in nine months and take more than 767 rolls of film, 27,000 frames, from which he culled 83 for “The Americans,” the photo-book which was published first in Paris in 1958 and in New York in 1959. The French edition — published by Robert Delpire as Les Américains — had his photos interspersed with texts from writers—Tocqueville, Simone de Beauvoir, and Richard Wright—that made it sound like an anti-American tract. Frank disliked it. The New York version had the literary quotes removed and the design restored to what Frank had envisioned.