by J. Nathan Matias
All of the works analyzed carry with them a powerful sense of atmosphere. Web-based nonfiction would do well to learn from them.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum goes to great lengths to create atmosphere. Everything, from the architecture to the art all build together to form this experience. Inside the main areas, the architecture hints at common perceptions of prison architecture, using riveted metal, brick, and raw grey concrete. Inside the exhibit, low light and the warm glow of dim, focused spotlights keep things readable but gloomy. Displays are black and dark grey. Color is rare. The atmosphere reeks of sorrow.
The Eastern State Penitentiary can't avoid having atmosphere; the atmosphere is the museum. Where the Holocaust Museum creators worked hard to create the sense of prison, the people at Eastern state must work hard to restore and preserve the decaying building while keeping the visual element of decay. The atmosphere is somber, gloomy, and wonderfully beautiful at the same time. Careful lighting contributes to atmosphere, and art installations usually reflect on of the atmosphere of decay within the penitentiary.
Nonfiction books can't use color or lighting to create a sense of atmosphere. For Old Friends and Last Night's Fun, the language style determines atmosphere. These two books diverge widely in style, which is fitting, considering their vastly-different topics. In Last Night's Fun, Ciaran Carson is trying to describe the chaotic jumble of Irish Musuc. His style is chaotic yet lyrical, perfectly matching the subject he describes. Tracy Kidder, on the other hand, believes that writing should be "as clear as a pane of glass" (Hines). This stylistic sparseness allows the emotional depth of Kidder's writing to come out. It is this simplicity, this raw connection to the human experience, that fills Kidder's atmosphere.
Ken Burns's documentaries use the nostalgic effect of panned photographs, good voice actors, and period music to set the atmosphere. In his documentaries, atmosphere is a careful blend of quality, artistic (still photography-based) cinematography combined with his Multitude of Voices to craft whatever atmosphere he needs at the moment. The atmosphere lies in the blending points. For Spielberg in Band of Brothers, the atmosphere is an actual atmosphere, since this nonfiction movie series recreates everything, from everyday objects to weapons and anecdotes. By producing high-contrast, low saturation film, Spielberg connects the color elements of the film to the common perception of World War II through old, faded photographs.
In Ornament in Information Architecture, Mark Bernstein argues that the elements that create atmosphere can (and should) be merged when working with hypertext. Graphics, layout, and design are part of atmosphere. Writing is part of atmosphere. Even the very structure of the links contributes to atmosphere:
When properly used, design and ornament in written and multimedia elements of creative web nonfiction should create atmosphere that reflects the topic at hand. Fray.com is a good example. Each story has a different feel, a different mood. Some are happy, some are funny, some are serious, etc. By using different artists for each story and customizing the layout/design of each story, Fray is able to effectively mold atmosphere. Notice how Fray stories differe from many other narrative nonfiction works. Usually, in nonfiction, designers try to set the mood with photographs. This only works in a limited number of cases, those where the nostalgic mood of photographs needs to be invoked. At Fray, if they can't express it in photographs, they use custom art.
Fray does nonfiction with personal stories; it could just as easily be done with researched or artifactual nonfiction.
- Hines, Elaine. "In His Element: Tracy Kidder" from the Andover Bulletin Online
- Fray.com, "a place for people who believe that the web is about personal expression and a new kind of art"
- "Ornament in Information Architecture", by Mark Bernstein. Published in Tekka, Issue 4. (Tekka is a nice journal, which covers a wide range of topics on new media and software aesthetics.)