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Robert coles the tradition fact and fiction essay




“The documentary tradition as a continually developing “record” that is made in so many ways, with different voices and vision, intents and concerns, and with each contributor, finally, needing to meet a personal text” (Coles 218). Coles writes “The Tradition: Fact and Fiction” and describes the process of documenting, and what it is to be a documentarian. He clearly explains through many examples and across disciplines that there is no “fact or fiction” but it is intertwined, all in the eye of the maker. The documentarian shows human actuality; they each design their own work to their own standards based on personal opinion, values, interest and whom they want the art to appeal to. Coles uses famous, well-known photographers such as Dorthea Lange and Walker Evans, who show the political angle in their documentations and the method of cropping in the process of making the photo capture exactly what the photographer wants the audience to view. In this paper I will use outside sources that support and expand on Coles ideas with focus on human actuality, the interiority of a photograph, and the emotional impact of cropping.

According to Coles and an outside source I found, Lange is a documentarian who vividly portrays human actuality in her writing. Lange is depicted through Robert Coles as a caring individual, whose innermost thoughts, concerns and beliefs are transferred onto her photographs, especially in her photograph of the “Migrant Mother,” which is from her most well-known photograph during the dustbowl era. Jack Hurley’s book, Portrait of a Decade, describes more about Lange’s motives and background, thus making me able to better understand Coles’ ideas and the other parts of the essay regarding Lange:
When economic disaster struck the country… Dorothea Lang knew that somehow she had to be a part of the fight to win better conditions for the poor…Lange had very strong feelings about social injustice and her feelings came through clearly in her photographs. Because she did not come to Washington until the next spring, Lange did not take part in those early, highly important discussions and critiques. Her work was done separately in the early days and primarily on the West Coast. Even so, Lange’s pictures spoke for her and had a tremendous influence on the formative period of historical section.

In this paper I used outside sources such as Hurley’s book, Gawthrop’s, Jacobson and Moakley articles to clarify and develop deeper thinking about Coles’ ideas in “The Tradition: Fact and Fiction,” with focal points being: human actuality, the interiority of a photograph, and the emotional impact of cropping. Throughout Coles’ essay he portrays a documentarian as one who creates their work to meet their own standards based on personal opinion, values, interest and their audience. He also shows, in correlation to the title, that there is no line between fact or fiction in documentary work; they are loosely mingled, overlapping and only seen separately from a biased standpoint.

Coles, Robert. “The Tradition: Fact and Fiction.” Ways of Reading (2002) 175-218.

Gawthrop, Louis. “Dorothea Lange and visionary change.” Society 30 (1993): 64.

Hurley, Jack. Portrait of a Decade. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1972.

Jacobson, Colin. “A different way of seeing.” Lancet 357 (2001): 1454.

Moakley, Paul. “End fame: A room of one’s own: Todd Eberle on Walker Evans.” Photo District News 23(2003): 128.

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