Robert Frank: object-oriented photographer

Revised version of my Frank musings.

“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 […] 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…” Robert Frank’s original Guggenheim application{Greenough 2009@362}.

Robert Frank’s paper road movie The Americans{Frank 2008} is a picture of American objects and those objects are, by the necessity of his project, ontologically flat, democratic – present but distinct and withdrawn.

There are 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.  The flat ontology, the materiality was necessary because Frank’s project was a different sort of documentary. He was after “the Americans”, not just American people or some abstract “America”, but the Americans (human and unhuman) that as objects made up that mesh.

These objects 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{Steichen 1983} 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 mesh 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.

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 the 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.

Frank approached the objects in Cafe – Beaufort, 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.