Example Essay by a First-Year Student, with Commentary
Instructor's Note, by Joe Essid
Emily Schworer, a student in my Fall 2009 English 103 course, did a good job anlyzing a photograph by Ansel Adams, from a show then on our campus. Nearly two years later, I asked her to reflect on the changes she'd have made then, or now, were she to revise her work. The paper as submitted could still use revision, but all papers can. My remarks about Emily's draft are in blue.
This assignment in visual analysis posed real challenges for writers who normally would reproduce an image in a traditional paper. Ansel Adams' work is copyrighted, so the class, posting work online, could not legally reproduce a downloaded copy of any photograph. I rather liked that limitation, since it forced the writers to use words as best they could to not only describe but suggest implications and conduct analysis of a visual object.
The Assignment: Students had two options. Emily chose this one.
Support the following claim or write and present evidence for a counter claim to it: "A black and white photo, framed and carefully shot by a master photographer, does not capture what is really in nature."
Note that she had to do some prewriting tasks as well, noted here:
“Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico”
I was attracted to the photograph “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” by Ansel Adams because the balance of dark and light was not what I would have expected from a typical landscape. When thinking about a nature scene, the colors that usually come to mind are green or blue. However, the black sky with no clouds drew me into the photograph. The dark sky allows for other aspects of the photograph to have emphasis. Just because there is a lack of color, does not mean that the picture is missing anything. Although some may believe “A black and white photo framed and carefully shot by a master photographer, does not capture what is really in nature”, the elimination of color actually emphasizes the other aspects of nature including texture, contrast of light and form that the viewer tends to overlook.
The appearance of texture in different elements of the photograph adds to the feeling of nature that has been captured. It is easy to be distracted by color and not notice the contrasting textures in a photograph. It can be possible to see that a mountain range appears rough and rigid while the picture is still in color, but how closely are you really looking at it? By eliminating color the eye can focus on the differences between the smooth sky, the stony mountains, and the dry grasses. Indeed it takes a master photographer to capture all of these elements in one photograph. It would be simple to focus on just a rugged rock and photograph that, but the combination of the textures truly makes the scene remarkable and in no way lacks a sense of nature due to being in black and white.
Without color you can look at all the other elements of nature equally. Since the moon does not shine brighter than other aspects of the picture, it allows the viewer to notice that it is a focal point, but then move on from there. The eye isn't constantly distracted by one object that stands out. Instead the eye can focus on different parts of the photograph that all have elements of the beauty of nature. In the "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico" the mountains in the background can be focused on, as well as the town in the foreground. If in color, the mountains could potentially fade into the background and the viewer would miss out on their magnificence. The lack of color also allows the town to not look out of place. The colors of the man-made buildings and graves have the potential to take away from the balance of contrasting light and color nature provides. Instead the town blends into the natural scene surrounding it. It would not have the same effect if the background had a completely different color palette than the foreground. Attaining the contrast of light in this black and white scene allows the viewer to see beyond what they would have, had the natural scene been in color.
Capturing the form of the scene can be another missed element of nature when looking at a landscape in color. The way the pieces of nature work together creates a sense of balance that intrigues the viewer. The black and white keeps the focus on the shapes and how they play-off each other in the landscape. Color tends to blend the boundaries of shape, while black and white sharpens those boundaries. The viewer may potentially become so distracted by the appealing colors they don't even notice how the specific placement of elements in a photograph creates a sense of balance. This greatly impacts the viewer's experience. Elements can be simple and boring when not presented in a clear or captivating way; however, when they are assembled in an interesting way the result can be breathtaking. "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico" shows how Ansel Adams can take five simple elements including the sky, moon, mountains, a field and town and combine them in a way that creates an amazing spectacle of nature.
Looking deeply into a photograph, past the simple elements, it becomes possible to get a sense of what the photographer wants to capture. Breaking down the different elements of the photograph is important, but looking at the piece as a whole can really give a good sense of what the artist wanted to get across. After viewing Adams' photographs I find it hard to believe someone would agree, "A black and white photo framed and carefully shot by a master photographer, does not capture what is really in nature”. Ansel Adams had no trouble capturing nature in "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico" or in any of his other black and white photographs for that matter. He looked more deeply into what the idea of nature really means and was able to showcase nature from a different point of view. It could be argued that the black and white photos not only capture what is really in nature, but go as far as enhance it.
Emily chose not to present her support or refutation of the claim immediately. That said, every detail here implies that she will do so.
The final sentence works well because it goes beyond supporting the claim to adding something original, that the lack of color can enhance a viewing experience. I also see a "roadmap" for the supporting reasons here. Too many student writers omit that important structural helper!
The second paragraph follows the topic sentence's promise that "texture" will be considered. I would have liked the paragraph better had Emily given me an example from her chosen photograph.
For variety, she need not have repeated the entire title. "Adams' photograph" would suffice.
Here, however, she does provide specific details from her subject.
The structure of the paper, while following the promose of the introduction well, has gotten too formulaic. The topic here, "form" might be introduced more effectively, and a little less mechanically, were Emily to have used her fourth sentence as the starting point.
I also see no reason to repeat the photo's title yet again.
I like how the conclusion reiterates the notion of black and white enhancing nature. What still could improve this would be a little extrapolation, going beyond the subject itself and to the lessons it teaches. Perhaps Emily learned something about the art of the photographer? Or why so many artistic photos, even today, appear in black & white?