In Cafe – Beaufort, South Carolina (image-object) an African-American baby crawls towards their blanket or changing mat across a wooden floor. The room has a table with a white tablecloth and two mismatched wooden chairs. Two windows are bleached out in the sun which casts panes of light across the floor. The light also falls on the glass of the giant jukebox that dominates the rule of thirds, towering over the baby but also the composition. Not places against the wall or out of the way, the jukebox takes pride of place at an angle to the bar to the left of Frank. In the contact sheet, of the five image taken, three show the bartender, larger than his jukebox which stands like a customer leaning against the counter. There is one other image of the baby crawling. In this the baby’s head is down, its legs folded not in middle of the strenuous act of crawling. In the frame Frank chose, the baby is active, a human movement in the hulking presence of the jukebox.
The frame, as with all of The Americans image-objects, cannot be looked at alone. It is a frame in his paper movie where the the preceding and succeeding images, as well as others throughout the stream are connected compositionally, thematically and in terms of objects. Here though I want to concentrate on this one nested object and Frank as the object-oriented photographer.
It is necessary to draw a distinction between the objects in the Cafe in South Carolina in 1955 and the objects as photographic representations in silver, as photographs printed in a book or pulled in as jpegs by Google’s algorithms.
Firstly the objects in the Cafe as they connected with Frank.
Frank approached these objects in the Cafe in South Carolina as actual presences. The jukebox, baby, chair, light and mat were fully present but exceeded their relations, qualities and accidents. He could not see nor photograph the quantum dance at the subatomic level within the jukebox glass, the baby’s hair or the photons of light. He could not see nor photograph the rear of the jukebox. There was more to each object than the particular manifestation before his lens. The objects withdrew but it was in that withdrawal that Frank could work. It was the fact that those objects were all equal ontologically and photographically that enabled him to take this photograph and make it work with all the others in The Americans. Most importantly each object was actual. It was not defined by its relations to any other, a plasma or a potentiality. The jukebox. The DNA in the baby. The wooden chair leg were all real, material and vibrant regardless of any other object. But there were connections. They connected with each other in the heart of other objects. The real baby object connected with the sensual floor object (a dimension of the floor object) within another object – the cafe-baby object that Frank connected with as he pressed the button and as exists now as part of Cafe – Beaufort, South Carolina. The objects are not just compositional building blocks, they are ontological ones too. And Frank’s practice depend on them so he could create image-objects.
Secondly Frank’s photographic objects.
The light photons Frank collected when he opened his Leica shutter chemically reacted with the silver objects in his film’s emulsion. That very physical and material object-connection within the negative-object was repeated as the enlarger’s photon objects were filtered through that negative to connect with the silver in the printing paper. Photography was, and I would argue remains, a very material process. The photograph Cafe – Beaufort, South Carolina whether ‘in’ the original negative or print, the printed or digital reproduction is an object. It connects with other images in his contact sheets and other images in the book or the search page. These images connect within objects -the Google search results-object, my writing-object, The Americans object. This was Frank’s project, connecting images in his paper road movie. HIs was not a project of isolated decisive moments or a relational picture essay. His was a a project of connections – objects connections within object connections within object connections.
At first glance Cafe – Beaufort, South Carolina looks like a humanist image, one that would fit into The Family of Man. It would appear to be an example of correlationist imaging – the human as the guarantor of the image and the story. The baby’s presence as the charge of the jukebox nanny, as the real in the presence of the artificial, the vibrant in the presence of the material, the motive in the presence of the static. But Frank’s method demands a flat ontology. He cannot tie jukeboxes and fenders, changing mats and dresses even babies and old men unless each can have its own vibrant material presence, unless each is actual. His practice of the stream of images demands an object-oriented approach.