Muhlenberg College Spring 2019

Robert coles

A Web of Complexity

Chapter 3 is a loaded chapter, in my opinion. I feel as though in the first two chapters, Coles focused very heavily on how everything is subjective, and no matter how many perspectives are viewed, there is always the subconscious bias of the creator or editor of the documentary. However, in this chapter, Coles discusses how fact vs. fiction is not as black and white as they are presumed to be. For example, he states “A documentarian’s report will be strengthened by what has been witnessed, but what will be fueled, surely, by what those observations come to mean by his or her head: we absorb sights and sounds, and they become our experience, unique to us, in that we, their recipients, are unique.” (Coles 91) Dorothea Lange edited her photos to direct them towards unfolding the humanity of the Great Depression. Although her subjectivity was evident, she used it to her advantage to convey a better understanding of the human condition to the rest of America.

Coles states that documentary work is a human, a web of complexities (background, race, political opinions, gender, sexuality, religion) interacting with another web of complexities, making this web all the vaster and all the more complicated. Dorothea Lange dealt with polio for her whole life, and then later, cancer. Location is so important to Dorothea Lange, who was born in the northeast and had a Columbia education. She witnessed the Great Depression in cities firsthand. She also experienced tremendous loss, with her father leaving and then divorcing her first husband. Location was also important because of the places that she and her second husband traveled in order to research and photograph America during the Great Depression. They traveled across the country, and her studio was based in California. She was, as Gordon stated, a city girl with a love for western environmentalism. These locations shaped her ideas, as she lived in the northeast, which is primarily liberal, and then California. However, the photo she took of Florence Thompson shows how race and economic status are huge social gaps, as one resident of California had a Columbia level education, and the other was a destitute pea picker.

This connects with the importance of Dorothea Lange’s location, and how her perspective and location shaped how she utilized her camera. Coles shows various images that Lange had cropped and edited to enable the gaze of the subject to connect with the gaze of the viewer. She did this particularly in her work “Ditched, Stalled, and Stranded” where she cut out the face of the wife in the car and kept the gaze of the husband. This shows how the subjectivity of editing gives a photo certain importance, as Coles says, “Lange turns a photograph into a melancholy statement that embraces more than the population of a California agricultural region. She does so by cropping (editing) her work, by denying us the possibility of a married couple in which one spouse seems reasonably contented, by reducing a scene to a driver who is readily seen as forlorn, and also as deeply introspective, eager for us, his fellow citizens, to return the intensity of his (moral) introspection.” (Coles 108-109). Lange showed viewers that the subjects in her photos were worthier than more than what their conditions were. She gave them a genuine sense of humanity. “What Lange saw in her subjects came partly from her own consciousness. Her portraits of sharecroppers and Japanese Americans express her emotions as well as theirs,” (Gordon 7). This subjectivity and sense of location combined into this web of complexity within Lange gave her photos a sense of meaning, which is why they are so well known today. Subjectivity is not always as negative as it is perceived to be, it is simply complex.