The Guggenheim Fellowship is one of the top grants a photographer can get. It comes from a private foundation set up to award funds to a wide array of people in all kinds of disciplines. I have applied several times but have never received an award. It runs about $43,000 but varies slightly from year to year.
Each time you apply you must find four recommenders who will write on your behalf. As the award is granted partially due to how highly placed these recommenders are (and how strong their recommendations are for your work) it is important to seek the best you can find to write for your application. As there are only so many very highly placed curators, gallerists, academics and photographers in our field very often the hardest part of the application is to seek and find those that will agree to write on your behalf.
This has become a little easier now that we can share our imagery on line or through emails. In earlier times I would often send in a shipping case a portfolio to someone whom I hoped would write on my behalf several months before the application was due, to acquaint them with my photography.
Add to this the reality that many of these people may not know your work or heard of you. What is one to do? Network aggresively; establish contacts early on and continue to nurture a relationship with those top people. When I go someplace in the U.S. I usually try to meet with some of the people that are at the top of the heap locally. As a for instance, Anne Wilkes Tucker has written for my application at least once. I first showed her work in 1979. Anne is a senior curator in photography at the Houston Museum. When I asked her initially she said yes, she would write for me but she would have to place me in the second or third tier of recommendations as she had agreed earlier to place someone else first. Okay. This gives you an indication of just how highly placed some of these people are.
Harry Callahan wrote on my behalf several times and was always very willing to try again. Here is the front and back of the postcard he sent me in 1983 after I'd written him saying that my application for a Guggenheim had been denied:
and the back:
This provides some insight into Harry's innate generosity and is one small reason why I revered him so much.
Why haven't I received a fellowship? While I can't answer whether I have or have not deserved one, the process of contacting potential writers and then preparing a portfolio was so daunting and the rejection so demoralizing that my applications were sporadic. I waited a few years so that I would forget how badly the last rejection made me feel, then apply again. This probably wasn't the best strategy for getting a Guggenheim.
There is one more award that resides above the Guggenheim and that is the MacArthur, the so called "genius grant". This one needs no application, they contact you if you received it. The MacArthur currently pays $500,000 sent out in quarterly installments over a five year period. Can you imagine that phone call? Needless to say, I am not waiting by the phone.