by Robert Root
In the creation of a prose poem or a lyric essay or a haibun or prosimetrum, we cross genres by fusing elements of one literary, text-based genre with another literary, text-based genre—melding or coupling nonfiction and poetry. With the imagessay, as I would term both the visual essay and the video essay, we’re crossing one discipline with another, essentially blending a form of visual media (photography or cinema) with a form of literary nonfiction. As familiar as we are with nonfiction as essay or literary journalism or narrative text, with thematic exhibitions of photographs, and with documentary film, in which voiceover narration informs while visual elements simultaneously enact or confirm, the idea of a visual or a video essay isn’t a difficult or alien concept. Except, of course, that they aren’t exactly documentaries.
The challenge of combining visuals with text may be one of deciding whether the images illustrate the words, as a supplement, or whether the images and words are integrated and interdependent. My favorite editions of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer and Dante’s The Divine Comedy have illustrations by N. C. Wyeth and Gustave Dore, respectively, but these images are merely splendid additions rather than integral elements. On the Internet, the insertion of some visual separating segments of text is commonplace. Every essay or article posted in the online journal Brevity has a photograph attached, usually by an editor rather than the author; each article on the digital version of The New Yorker also includes a relevant illustration: a photo of men kissing for an essay on sex in gay novels, a still from a film or television show for a media review. At the other end of the spectrum graphic memoirs like Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home or Are You My Mother? or a work of literary journalism combining text and photography like Salt Dreams by William deBuys and Joan Meyers are works in which text and image are interlocking, fully balanced and harmonious, each meant to enhance or complement one another. Inevitably much else will fall on different locations along the line that stretches between these two poles.
What I am terming imagessay in regard to visuals in prose essaysreferstoworksinwhichimageisintegraltotheessay, provided or selected by the author and intimately involved in the generation or the expression of the text. We are accustomed to ekphrasis in poetry, in which a poet reacts to and/or interacts with a work of art: Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” or Williams’ “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” The imagessay is often similarly ekphrastic, similarly concerned with examining the response that an image prompts in the essayist. This is essentially what happens in representative works by Lawrence Sutin and Judith Kitchen.
In A Postcard Memoir Sutin’s fascination with the way certain antique postcards affected him led him to gather a collection of his own. He claims, in his introduction, that either “certain memories of mine began to seep into certain postcards” or others “challenged me to come out after them and fight like a writer.” Eventually he realized “that they were egging me on through the stations of my life.” Sutin’s “chapters” are usually a page long, sometimes two, with an accompanying photo of a postcard. The images are always antique, usually foreign, and objectively unrelated to the author’s life, except for the ways in which they inspire in him memories or personal reﬂections. The cover photo shows a young man in suit and bowler hat perched on a crescent moon, its face in profile, and stars in the background; in the prose that faces that image in the book Sutin considers himself at the age of the “Man in the Moon” on the postcard: “By the time I graduated from college I was I think what you’d call a fellow who knew what was what.” The image of a woman in a theatrical riding costume identified as M’lle Bianca on a postcard labeled “Gruff auf dem Cirkus” makes him consider a short-lived crush on a fellow student named Cara; a photo of “Father Holding Baby” recalls his failure at dealing with his crying infant; a photo of the “Dinosaur Exhibit at the Century of Progress Exposition” triggers a meditation on the nature of evil. In a sense the genre-crossing hybrid nature of the book resembles an interdisciplinary version of a haibun journal, with photographs substituting for haiku—the reader is continually drawn to the image despite its apparent distance from the prose and then back to the prose from the image. Over time the circumstantial and the intimate merge, until we feel in the most compelling segments that the personal is always part of the universal and vice versa, no matter how remote from one another they might initially appear.
In Half in Shade: Family, Photography, and Fate, Judith Kitchen, working from a “haphazard collection of boxes and albums [. . .] my mother had managed to save from the ﬂoods,” set herself the challenge “to give ‘voice’ to what is inherent in the visual” and “to keep the visual from dominating, making all my thoughts redundant.”Sheusedthephotographs“astriggeringdevices,”trying, as she says, “to interact [. . .] to animate and resurrect.” The cover image is repeated in the book as the subject of “Young Woman on Fence,” an interrogation of an image of a young woman in glasses, shirt, tie, sport coat, and knickers perched on a white fence with her feet resting on a narrow tire. Kitchen examines the composition of the shot, the significance of the pose, the clues to the circumstances. Her mother has not identified the woman or the place or the date and Kitchen speculates about her garb, her attitude, her background and her aspirations. The speculation leads to reﬂections on her own childhood: “I learned how to be a boy from my books. [. . .] To be a boy was to be free from the eyes of those who told me who I should be.” It may be that all ekphrasis exposes the individual interpreting what is viewed, but here and throughout the book the generally short essays repeatedly wonder about the mother’s relationship to the people in the albums and reﬂect on the author’s sense of her mother (and other relatives) as well as her own sense of herself. In “Who” she envies an unnamed girl in a photo standing among chickens by the side of a house, with a chicken perched on her left shoulder, and reﬂects on the farm environment that likely existed “off-lens.” “I want this moment,” she writes, “but not what it stands for. Want one minute of overlapping shadow, one slapdash second of light. Quick, while she has a perch on pleasure.” In “Where” she compares her childhood to that of a young girl in a photo standing with her grandfather in a cornfield—the girl and the author would have been the same age in the same year and their environment but not their family life would have been similar. In other segments she considers photos of her mother and of other family members and eventually one photograph of herself sitting on the bottom of a stepladder with a friend sitting at the top. Throughout the book we need the images to understand what triggers the prose and we need the prose to understand why the images are there. The relationship is symbiotic, harmonious, hybrid.
In an imagessay we can’t separate the image from the essay, anymore that we can separate the prose from the poem in a prose poem or the lyric from the essay in a lyric essay. The aesthetic question to ask is whether the visual elements enhance the meaning of the text and whether the verbal elements enrich our understanding of the images. The degree of intimacy or interplay between text and image might be located on a sliding scale on which a point somewhere determines when they no longer function together as an imagessay but have become either a mere illustration accompanying a text (like those random photos on blogs) or a mere prose account accompanying an image (like explanatory text below photos on blogs). In an imagessay the relationship between image and text is symbiotic, each serving the needs of the other, as if ekphrasis might also involve the image’s reﬂections on the text. Essays offered online can readily display this symbiosis.
“St. Francis & the Isle of Foula” by Lynne Shapiro is essentially a travel narrative, set on a remote island off the coast of Great Britain where the narrator participates in research on northern sea birds. She tells us that, as an art historian, she was fascinated by a Bellini painting of St. Francis with birds and, as a novice birder, she was intent on having a birding adventure. Foula is the place she elected to have that adventure, and part of the essay actually is adventurous: her descent with the other researchers into a 200-foot-deep crevice called the Sneck o’ the Smallie to a narrow ledge at the edge of a frigid sea. She’s also been reading a biography of St. Francis, in which he has frequent encounters with lepers, and learns that the research encampment is located on the site of a former leper colony. When she returns from the island she chooses to print a photograph she’d taken of a winter wren and discovers a figure dressed in Franciscan robes in the background. She writes: “Why was this photo, the last I’d taken on Foula, the one I chose to print? The unseen was an integral part of my experience on Foula. . .
. My murky photograph of a bird and a man became a representation of the enigmatic island. Memory is compartmentalized, like an island, and Foula has transformed over the years from a real place I actually walked, end to end, into a mystical memory.” She notes that, in an earlier biography she read, St. Francis was credited with having “discerned the hidden things of nature with his sensitive heart.”
Essays are often the essayist’s way of exploring synchronicities and associations that she alone finds relevant, as a means of sorting out the connections and their significance. That alone would justify this essay, but Shapiro has included photographs in her essay and they add to the evidence and atmosphere of the text. One image is a detail of Bellini’s painting of St. Francis. Five other photographs were taken by the author. One black and white photograph of the island gives us a sense of how barren and windswept Foula is, the lack of color adding to the chill of the place. Another gives us a perspective into the Sneck o’ the Smallie and heightens our appreciation of the daunting aspects of her descent. The first photo of the essay, behind the title, is a color shot of the croft house and sea arch along the edge of the island, with an image of a statue of St. Francis ethereally superimposed upon it. The final photo is a black and white shot of a hand holding a winter wren with an out-of-focus image of a man in Franciscan robes and sunglasses in the background looking at the person holding the bird. The images of the island give us a more concrete sense of place than the text does; they reinforce one another. The images of St. Francis or a Saint Francis-like figure reinforce the associations the author is making between the island and the saint and, along with the opening Bellini image, make the linkage tangible. The visual elements of the essay are not simply illustrative; they extend and amplify the impressions of the text.
The way text and image emphasize one another is typical of the imagessay. In “Setnet Fishing in Uyak Bay,” about living on an island off the coast of Alaska, Sarah Loewen includes photographs that enhance our sense of place and complement the narrative about the family’s fishing and the challenges of living where they do. “Sunset Canto,” with text by William deBuys and photographs by Alex Harris, an excerpt from their book, River of Traps: A New Mexico Mountain Life, offers a lyrical moment at the end of a typical day when the narrator talks quietly with an old man who personifies the spirit of the place, the figure in the accompanying photograph. The moment at sunset is all the richer for our visual sense of the man who is the focus of the moment in the text. Shelley Salamensky, in “Postcards from Birobidzhan: The Life and Death and Life of the Jewish Autonomous Republic,” uses a series of images to link segments of an essay that combines history and personal travel— her photos have been doctored to appear like postcards and the brief text segments read like expanded postcards.
In all these cases the images are tightly linked to the texts, and indeed each may have inﬂuenced the other. Christine Stewart- Nunez, describing the process behind her online essay “New Lens,” says that she selected twelve photos to write about out of around 200 or so taken on family travels and only recognized “the thread of ‘Holden unfolding’” (Holden is her son) when she was working on the text for the fifth one. That helped her narrow her choices to nine images, and she compressed each segment after drafting it to harmonize the whole. In other words, the text affected the images and the images affected the text. Linda Barrows, who composed an unpublished imagessay titled “Arabesque” from images found on public sites, similarly noted that, “in selecting images for my own piece, I was inspired to revise some of the prose to expand meaning or change direction. That was a modest beginning of a holistic process for me as a writer.” The idea of the imagessay emerging from a holistic process is a key element of the genre crossing going on in this form.
It may simply be that technological advances in media have made possible forms of literary presentation that were already inherent in literature but restrained by earlier limitations of print publication. Certainly, ekphrasis is an aesthetic urge we date back to Homer in poetry, and the possibility of the image serving as a representation of the text—a reversal of our usual sense of ekphrasis—has been made more likely by our contemporary media. Think of the way video has made it possible to develop popular song beyond the audio, in the same way audio recordings moved it beyond sheet music and live performance. Music videos can often be highly innovative, painstaking, groundbreaking mergers of the visual and the aural; the best of them model the kind of genre crossing that genuinely becomes a hybrid artform of considerable power.
A good many music videos challenge the simplest interpretation of a song by adding visual elements that alter, heighten, or expand its meaning. Take, for example, the song “Wonder” by Natalie Merchant. When you hear it or when you read the lyrics, it seems to be a song of self-celebration (“I must be one of the wonders of god’s own creation”), an assertion of individuality and pride, delivered by one strong individual, but the video of the song shows a great many females of different ages, races, and body types mingling with one another on a stage, Merchant herself among them. Almost instantaneously the song is not an individual assertion but an anthem. Or take, for another example, the video for “Constant Craving” by k. d. lang, where scenes of lang in the character of a reﬂective person backstage at a theater are interspersed with scenes of nonmusical performers onstage and reaction or anticipation shots of an audience. The theatrical performance evokes Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, in its own way a drama of existential longing; the elements of the theatrical production and its audience add new dimensions to the lyrics of the song, in some ways universalizing it, and the song adds new dimensions to the theatrical elements.
We don’t usually think of music videos as literary works, but I would argue that they are certainly always rhetorical acts and, in their aesthetics, depending on the video, often highly poetic or dramatic. For an arresting mix of the visual with actual poetry, consider the online site for Motionpoems, a project begun by Todd Boss and Angela Kassube, which matches poetry from The Best American Poetry with animators who create short films in response to the poems. The poems are both read aurally and made visual. The project is collaborative, but the poets and animators don’t necessary work together on the films—the visual components are distinctly the work of the animators in reaction to the work of the poets. In recent years individual poets, whether in similar collaborations or in isolation, have also been combining poetry with video in a form some of them like to term “cinépoetry,” in many cases clearly drawing on the techniques of music video, as individual essayists have also been doing.
The addition of sound and video to a visual essay raises the level of complication we feel when we encounter it. If you were to read Lisa Bickmore’s essay “Last Day” simply as a prose text, you would find it a meditation on aging and loss—“but always, behind every other thing, my consciousness murmurs away in a small but perpetual colloquy about how everything there is is gone or going”— and a realization of what she has missed and will miss in her life. At its center is a narrative section about taking the wrong road and driving past a lake formed by an earthquake fifty years earlier and talking to people in a bar who give contradictory directions meant to get her on the right road. The metaphorical dimensions of these elements don’t need much spelling out. It is a quiet, contemplative essay. On the webpage for terrain.org, the online journal where it was first published, you can click a link that will open up “the full text of the essay” for silent reading.
The webpage, however, centers on a video screen with an image of branches in a tree and when you click the Play button and pass the title card, you hear the essayist read the text of the essay while you watch the tree limbs sway in an audible wind. About a minute into her reading, as she starts the third paragraph, we hear a piano begin to play a slow melody and soon the familiar image of a grid on a geographic survey map appears against the backdrop of the trees. A little hand appears on the map and she begins to be more specific about where she is in Montana; the hand pushes against the map and it enlarges (or zooms in) to highlight the very place she is talking about. The map images keep changing and becoming more specific about the location. Then at about two minutes into the video, the screen opens on a video of a body of water with a road in the background. When she begins to talk about the earthquake the camera zooms in on the dead trees and then begins to pan around the lake while she recites the fourth and fifth paragraphs of her essay. The video concludes with a long shot of the ripples on the lake.
The essay is still contemplative, of course, but it now asks us to respond to the music and the imagery. The music heightens the mood of the essay; the images heighten our sense of physical context; the narration by the author heightens the intimacy of the text, makes it more palpably personal. (Turn away from the computer screen and you can listen to it as an audio essay.) Like a music video the video essay has a wide range of possibilities for enhancing and heightening and empowering the prose of its text.
In her contributor’s notes for a video essay titled “That Kind of Daughter,” published by Triquarterly Online, Kristen Radtke makes a compelling point about the form. She writes, “For me, the most exciting complication that the video essay can introduce is the tension between two disparate ideas coming together. Where perhaps the ‘braided essay’ has worked to create a conversation between two seemingly unrelated threads, video essays can do this more cohesively than print can—we can truly engage with both threads at exactly the same moment.” She tells us something about the complications of being able to see the essay both in terms of text and in terms of image. “This has recently become my process— wrestling with an essay as text, then an essay as image, and then finally giving into its need to exist beyond the page.” She wrestles to avoid producing a work in which the visuals “dismantle a reader’s imagination” or merely illustrate what is already apparent on the page. “Perhaps the biggest obstacle we face as artists and writers is how we can craft visuals that do more than just offer a narrative that mirrors the text.”
“That Kind of Daughter” has been described by Marilyn Freeman as “an autobiographic nonlinear triptych that is at once lyrical and disquieting. Sequenced stop-motion black-and-white paper cuts visually illustrate, and momentarily reﬂexively startle, a hushed and dispassionate telling.” The stop-motion images morph from one shape to another—one section of the essay shows how she does it—and both reinforce the prose and link the sections of the triptych, complicating the sense of self that the narrator presents to us. The text and the images are equally vital to the essay.
John Bresland, in “On the Origins of the Video Essay,” observes that we all now “have access to nonlinear editing tools” available on our computers and “can shoot video, compelling video, on a cell phone.” Because of that accessibility to digital media, the nature of written creativity has altered: “The act of writing has always been a personal pursuit, a concentrated form of thought. And now filmmaking, too, shares that meditative space.” Where cinema used to be a collaborative art, one in which the screenwriter’s role was separate from the director’s, the cinematographer’s, and the editor’s, digital technology makes it possible for all those roles to be combined into one role: the role of the video essayist. As Bresland also puts it, it is possible, for some writers perhaps even preferable, “to write this way, with a pen in one hand, and a lens in the other.” For some reader/viewers the interdisciplinary nature of the imagessay is problematic; they want it to be one thing or another. Accepting that it won’t be—that it can’t be—will be difficult for them. As Freeman writes, “There is no primacy. The video essay does not privilege literary text over image, nor image over text, or either over sound or vice versa.” As with the need to read photographs together with text in the visual essay, the video essay “reader” has to learn how to absorb all the elements of the video essay simultaneously, as the video essayist must.
The imagessay is a hybrid literary form, and like any hybrid literary form it offers challenges to artist and audience alike. Some of the challenges are aesthetic—many readers resist the idea that text can be enhanced in any way by media, many writers are content with the aesthetics of the form they already work in and resistant to innovation. Someofthechallengesareinterpretive—howcanreader/ viewers adjust to the bicameral demands of an imagessay? How can artists amend the strategies that have served them well in their familiar genre? Of course, the simple resolution to these challenges is to ignore them, in the same way that I ignore books about golf, will never write about fashion, and feel no need to abandon textual prose. But for some readers and writers the imagessay opens doors into expression and interpretation; it expands the possibilities for making meaning out of our world and out of our lives by offering alternative ways to arrive at meaning, alternative means to transmit it. At the risk of transformation, it might be worthwhile for some of us to explore those possibilities, those alternative ways.
Barrows, Linda. Note to author. March 8, 2012.
Bechdel, Alison. Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama. Boston: Houghton-Mifﬂin, 2012.
Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Boston: Houghton-Mifﬂin, 2006.
Bickmore, Lisa. “Last Day” (<http://terrain.org/essays/27/ bickmore.htm>)
Bresland, John. “On the Origins of the Video Essay,” Blackbird: An Online Journal of Literature and the Arts. 9:1 (Spring 2010) (http://www.blackbird.vcu.edu/v9n1/gallery/ve- bresland_j/ve-origin_page.shtml)
deBuys, William, and Alex Harris, River of Traps: A New Mexico Mountain Life. San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2008.
deBuys, William, and Alex Harris, “Sunset Canto,” (http://www. terrain.org/essays/22/debuys_harris.htm)
deBuys, William, and Joan Myers. Salt Dreams: Land & Water in Low-Down California. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.
Freeman, Marilyn. “On the Form of the Video Essay,” Triquarterly Online http://triquarterly.org/essay/on-the-form-of-video-essay
Kitchen, Judith. Half in Shade: Family, Photography, and Fate.
Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2012.
lang, k. d. “Constant Craving” (www.youtube.com/ watch?v=oXqPjx94YMg)
Loewen, Sarah. “Setnet Fishing in Uyak Bay” (http://www.terrain. org/place/26/)
Merchant, Natalie. “Wonder” (www.youtube.com/ watch?v=6zpYFAzhAZY)
Radtke, Kristen. “That Kind of Daughter,” Triquarterly Online Jan 16 2012 (http://triquarterly.org/video-essay/kind- daughter)
Salamensky, Shelley. “Postcards from Birobidzhan: The Life and Death and Life of the Jewish Autonomous Republic,” The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction 6th ed. Ed. Robert L. Root Jr. and Michael Steinberg. New York: Pearson, 2012: 178-187.
Shapiro, Lynne. “St. Francis & The Isle of Foula” (http://www.terrain.org/essays/21/shapiro.htm)
Stewart-Nunez, Christine. “New Lens” (http://www.shadowboxmagazine.org/issue4/Gallery.swf)
Sutin, Lawrence. A Postcard Memoir. St. Paul: Graywolf Press, 2000.
An Emeritus Professor of English at Central Michigan University, Robert Root is presently Honored Visiting Faculty teaching creative nonfiction in the low-residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Ashland University. His books on creative nonfiction include the anthology The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction, co-edited with Michael Steinberg and presently in its sixth edition; the craft text The Nonfictionist’s Guide: On Reading and Writing Creative Nonfiction; the craft anthology Landscapes with Figures: The Nonfiction of Place; and the craft study E. B. White: The Emergence of an Essayist. For fifteen years he was a contributing editor to the nonfiction journal Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. As an essayist he has been an artist-in-residence at Isle Royale, Rocky Mountain, and Acadia national parks. His essays have appeared in such journals as Ecotone, North Dakota Quarterly, Ascent, The Pinch, and Colorado Review and been named Notable Essays of the Year in The Best American Essays. He is the author of Recovering Ruth: A Biographer’s Tale; Following Isabella: Travels in Colorado Then and Now; Postscripts: Retrospections on Time and Place; Limited Sight Distance: Essays for Airwaves and Happenstance, a memoir with photographs. His website iswww.rootwriting.com.