The Visual Essay as Digital Publishing
by Drew Morton — Texas A&M University-Texarkana
October 15, 2013 – 08:34
The visual essay (VE, although the term is not without its problems as “visual” implies the lack of an audio track and “essay” sometimes denotes a form of scholarship lesser than a conference paper or journal article), for those unfamiliar with the format, is often a hybrid of documentary filmmaking and scholarship similar to an article written for an academic journal. I say often because the format is young, there are only a handful of scholars producing them, and because some visual essay artists produce texts that have a poetic structure that nurtures an implied argument. For the sake of this brief response, I will be discussing the explicitly persuasive side of the spectrum. My own VE, “From the Panel to the Frame: Style and Scott Pilgrim,” illustrates the concept of stylistic remediation with regard to comic books and their film adaptations and how analyses of style can complicate our understanding of transmedia storytelling. The essay, unlike the poetic mode, is voice-over driven and seeks to define, analyze, and elaborate upon Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s theory of remediation and Henry Jenkins’s definition of transmedia storytelling.
The VE format is a gift to scholars in disciplines focused on the study of visual media (Cinema Studies, Media Studies, Comics Studies, etc.) for several reasons. Speaking anecdotally, my dissertation was a formal analysis of the relationship between comics and film. In the form of the dissertation, I needed to rely on prose and the occasional image of a comic book page or frame grab to capture a complex stylistic relationship. If you were to read the chapter that I adapted into the visual essay, the pairing of prose and imagery would give you a general sense of how comic book artists and filmmakers differ in their representation of space. However, the visual evidence in the VE provides a more vivid and nuanced portrait of the phenomenon of stylistic remediation because its representation is not limited by static images and text. In short, we can use film to analyze film.
Furthermore, the VE format is capable of both reaching a larger audience (“From the Panel to the Frame” has been watched more than 12,000 times) and inspiring a more participatory discussion than an academic article - accessible via subscription - can. The visual essay is digital and openly published. Yet, ease of access is only part of the equation. After all, a scholar can publish PDFs of his or her scholarship openly. More significantly, the artist needs to adapt his or her prose to the medium, away from academic prose and towards the aural friendly. That is not to say the academic visual essay avoids engaging in the theoretical; it simply engages in the theoretical in a more accessible and concise fashion.
To avoid furthering the concept of an academic digital utopia, the visual essay as a digital publishing format is not without its problems. Obviously, fair use and copyright are obstacles (this appears to be more of a problem for those VE artists that seek mainstream distribution, like Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinéma and Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself). More significantly, most published VEs suffer from a perceived lack of academic integrity. This false perception stems from multiple factors, with the most significant being the lack of an academic journal solely devoted to publishing, nurturing, and furthering the format. The good news is that a team of visual essay scholars and practitioners (myself included) are collaborating with two organizations focused on furthering digital publication in Cinema and Media Studies in establishing the first peer-reviewed videographic (as opposed to visual essay) academic journal. We hope this legitimization encourages scholars interested in the format to take the leap and bridge theory to practice, further developing and defining what this presentational format can offer.