The Robert Frank who produced his paper road movie The Americans was an object-oriented photographer. His was a flat ontology of object-actants. His documentary was of people yes, but also flags, jukeboxes, crosses, cigars, hats and cars – a Latour litany of human, non human and unhuman objects vibrant, doing things in the world. Those objects were material. They were the presences he encountered on his journey and he made re-present in his book. These real objects had histories, material conditions of production and consumption. They had pasts but also presents and presence as the jukebox watched over the crawling baby, as the cars watched over the kids making out. Most of the photographs Frank chose for The Americans included people but this was no humanist or correlationist story. Where Steichen’s The Family of Man led with people, privileging the human over a material world of object with which he struggled or for which she cared, Frank’s people are actants in a complex assemblage of objects. The working class lift operator and waitress or the society aristocrat or movie mogul are objects alongside a Santa Claus sign or a fur stole. These objects are not semiotic markers of an underlying class relation and more than the human is an archetype. They are all objects in the complex assemblage of 1950s America connected and connecting not at some external representational scale but in real world materiality of serving drinks, being ignored buy commuters or forging social and business networks. Frank is not external to this. He too is an actant. His shadow or gaze is woven into these object relations as it falls on windows or is returned suspiciously. There is no objective recorder or photo-journalistic position. There is only the position of object.
These objects are not defined by their relations. There is no exterior realm of potential, plasma or becoming in play. The objects at each indecisive moment of exposure are fully present and their reality exceeds their relations, qualities and accidents. They cannot be reduced to a mode of production or a segregationist system. This is not say that these hats and jukeboxes and fenders and crosses are isolated. Far from it. The heart of The Americans is to re-present those connections within the frame and between the frames. But those connections happen within objects not external to them.
The Americans is a nested work. The objects in the coffee-bar or on the street are connected within other objects. The sousaphone-object, the flag-object and the ‘Adlai’-badge-object connect as object within the parade-object. There is no decisive object, no punctum driving the story or the meaning. These object connect again and again with Frank within his camera-object, with me-as-object within my book object. These connection are not located in some external realm of signification or practice but within objects that are themselves actants reconnecting within other objects.
The image-objects are not somehow different to the objects in the images. They are not more or less than those objects. They are just different. The photographs (or the reproductions of the prints of the negatives…) are objects now positioned in new object-relations with the bookmark on my desk, my words on the screen, the print-out of my chapter, the code of my own images, the protocols enabling those images. These are not relations in an external realm of reading or semiotic play, they are connections within other objects – my practice-research project, an AHRC-funded PhD, an eBook, a Google search.
This object-oriented ontology is not specific to Frank. Any photographic work can be understood as object-oriented. What is particular about Frank is that his approach to documenting America, was an object-oriented practice – one starting from, located in and refusing to leave the world of objects.