Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum
Focus in on This Photo: Drew Point, Alaska
Date: June 20, 2008
Source: Stratus Consulting/University of Colorado
Near Drew Point, Alaska, along the northern coast. The photo shows what often follows such undercutting: chunks of coastline tumbling into the sea. Ocean waves slowly eat away coastal cliffs the world over, but in parts of Alaska, these processes have accelerated due to changing climate. There, coastal erosion owes its accelerated pace to two climate-driven phenomena: declining sea ice and thawing permafrost.
Permafrost is defined as ground (soil or rock and included ice or organic material) that remains at or below 0°C for at least two consecutive years.
There is land in the foreground, water to the right, the sky above, and four people standing in the background.
On the left side of the photograph, the coastline is grassy and jagged, and pieces of it have broken off and fallen into the icy ocean, which is covered with ice.
More broken pieces of land are visible in the background.
In the center of the photograph is a large chunk of land that has broken off and collapsed into the ocean. The group of people standing on the left appears to be studying it.
Build on Your Observations
The focal point of the composition is the large chunk of land that has broken off. The photographer has cut off the view on the right side, but there is still enough for the viewer to see the ocean on the right side. The caption describes declining sea ice, and the broken-up ice in the water illustrates this.
The vantage point allows the viewer to see that the piece that has broken off is layered: different textures distinguish that the grassy portion is distinct from the more granular looking lower layer.
The inclusion of the people in the photograph provides an indication of the scale of the landscape. The viewer understands these are massive pieces of land, and the viewer also gains a sense of how deep the permafrost layer extends—a depth that is deeper than the height of the humans standing on the ledge.
The chunk of earth in the center of the image becomes more significant when viewed with information from the caption, which mentions thawing permafrost.
The photographer is illustrating a relationship between higher sea level and thawing permafrost, which destabilizes the soil and rock: as a result, the land erodes and drops off into the ocean. The caption tells us this is occurring at an accelerated pace, and the inclusion of the people in the image add a sense of urgency to the image.
The particular geology of Drew Point makes this area particularly susceptible to erosion. The view of the land and ocean beyond the group of people illustrates this by showing this phenomenon is occurring further down the coastline and beyond the immediate space of the image.
Formulate Further Questions
In what regions is permafrost found? Where is the oldest permafrost?
What impact does the thawing permafrost have on the human, habitats, and cultural traditions of these regions?
3.4 Focus in on this Photo: Comparison of unsprayed conventional cotton crop and Bt GM cotton in Australia
3.5 Focus in on This Photo: Migratory Mexican field worker’s home on the edge of a frozen pea field. Imperial Valley, California
Program 1 A Closer Look (video)
This introduction to the course models the process of analyzing photographs with teachers and students. Photography historian Makeda Best discusses the Focus In method with teachers, and educator Julie Keefe employs the method with students at a photography exhibit on "light and dark." Photography curator at the Portland Art Museum, Julia Dolan discusses how she carefully selects a set of photographs to tell a larger story.
Program 2 Witness (video)
Photographs bear witness to world events and help us to learn more about people, places, and situations -- historical and present day. Middle school teacher Donald Rose guides students in analyzing photos from school integration movements of the 1960s. Documentary film producer Ken Burns weaves photographs into historical narratives to bring the past to life. Photojournalist Louie Palu's photos take us deep into mines and war zones, and engage us with the individuals who take on those tasks.
Program 3 Lives (video)
Lives explores the story of human resilience and perseverance. Middle school teacher Donald Rose uses the Migrant Mother photos by Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange to help students understand what elements a photographer chooses to focus on to create the greatest impact. Historian Linda Gordon, biographer of FSA photographer Dorothea Lange reveals Lange's role in engaging Americans in the plight of those who were most devastated. New Orleans documentary photographers Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick talk about the transformation of their photographs after Hurricane Katrina and working with young photographers to preserve the city's cultural heritage.
video 4 Evidence (video)
An image can show us otherwise invisible processes, previously undiscovered life forms, and dramatic change over time. High school teacher Rima Givot engages her students with highly magnified photos of mouse muscle to study genetically modified organisms. Scientist and photomicrographer Dennis Kunkel demonstrates the fascinating process of creating photographs of the microscopic world. Environmental photographer Gary Braasch reports on his worldwide travels to document the state of the planet through repeat photography.
Program 5 Story (video)
Every photograph tells a story: of struggle, of beauty, of community and culture. Social studies teacher Kim Kanof uses photos from the Protests and Politics collection to teach about protests around in the world in 1968. National Geographic photo editor Pamela Chen details the collaborative process of creating photo-based feature stories with design director David Whitmore. Iowa photographer Danny Wilcox Frazier discusses his work documenting the residents and images of marginalized communities across the United States.