Coles Essay

In comparing myself to Robert Coles as a documentary writer, I have found several similarities as well as some differences. I used some of the same techniques that he and the other documentarians used in their essays. I have also found that some of the techniques that I did not use of Robert Coles, Dorothea Lange, William Carlos Williams, and Paul Taylor; are some that I wish I would have.

Dorothea Lange, a photographer, has taken many photographs of one family in particular. “A photographer has edited and cropped her work in order to make it more accessible to her anticipated viewers.” (Coles, 187, 188) A documentarian has the opportunity to choose what they want the viewer to see. If the photographer does not want the audience or viewer to see a certain thing or person; they will simply crop the unwanted portion out. As a writer, I am telling the readers what I want them to know and understand. For example, if I do not want people to know a certain portion of my life, I don’t have to tell them. Lange is showing her audience the portion of the picture that she wants them to see, the portion of the photograph that will give her viewers the feeling that she wants them to have.

Paul Taylor also writes about how he turned the individual to the idiosyncratic with his photographs. Coles writes, “He [Paul Taylor] reminded us of Walker Evan’s genius for careful, sometimes provocative cropping and editing of particular photographs—his ability to sequence his prints, look at their narrative momentum, and choose particular ones for presentation: the exactly memorable, summoning, kindling moments.” (Coles, 195) Taylor chose what he wanted his audience to see. He wanted the memorable, summoning moments. I wanted those same types of moments in my documentary about my grandmother. I wanted the reader to be able to taste the jam that her mother made. I wanted the reader to smell the bread that her mother cooked for her family in the oven. I wanted the reader to realize what a good father she had; he provided for his family, even when weather seemed non-permitting.

When I wrote my documentary about my grandmother, I don’t think that I served as a “filter”. She didn’t really tell me anything that I felt that I needed to hide, or anything that was not needed. Although my grandmother skipped around a lot while she was telling me about her family and the Depression, everything that she told me was pertinent to who she was, and how the times were for some families. She told me of her mother and father’s everyday trials with their jobs and chores. Every detail was important to my story because I wanted to tell you about my grandmother, not necessarily about the Depression.

“As a documentarian, Lange snapped away with her camera, came back with a series of pictures that narrate a kind of white migrant life in the mid-1930’s—and then, looking for one picture that would make the particular universal, that would bring us within a person’s world rather that keep us out (as pitying onlookers), she decided upon a photograph that allows us to move from well-meant compassion to a sense of respect, even awe: we see a stoic dignity, a thoughtfulness whose compelling survival under such circumstances is itself something to ponder, something to find arresting, even miraculous.” (Coles, 188) Lange chose this picture to portray the Dust Bowl to her viewers. She wanted people to know that this “migrant mother” was one of many. This “migrant mother’s” story is very much the same story as everyone else in that time. I think that the woman in the photograph gave us as the reader a good understanding of how hard things were in that time. She shows that even though she was facing very tough times, she was remaining strong for her children. It is very important to have the pieces in your documentary work reflect the point that you want them to reflect. If Lange wanted to portray a different idea or time, she would have needed to crop the picture differently, or even choose a new subject.

William Carlos Williams writes, “…I’m trying to do another kind of ‘examination’—I’m still poking around, but I’m not doing it under the same terms. I’m hoping people will give me some access—talk with me and help me figure out what’s going on around here…” (Coles, 209) It is very difficult to write a documentary without the “whole story”. “Again and again Dorothea Lange asked questions, wrote down what she heard (or overheard).” (Coles, 193) If people are leaving out important details that could change the entire story, the documentary could become primarily fictional. Since the writer is already taking from the story what he wants his readers to know, these two factors prevent the truth from being written. If I am to write a documentary, I need the complete cooperation of everyone who is involved in the story. I have to be able to get people to let me into their lives, their past. If I am unable to get the cooperation of the people that I am writing about, then it is useless; the story will not be very accurate.

I think that it was great how Lange incorporated the history of the 1930’s into her discussion of these photographs. She simply wove it into her writings. I did not incorporate very much history of the Depression into my paper, although now, I wish that I would have. I wrote about how times were tough, and that some families had to go on relief, but besides describing my grandmother’s day-to-day life, I don’t think a reader could really understand how bad the Depression really was.

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