Creator's Statement

Layers of Paradox in F for Fake: United States 2009. Benjamin Sampson. Originally published in Mediascape in Fall 2009. 


Throughout the past year, I have been asked repeatedly to define what - exactly - a visual essay is. As I noted in a brief essay entitled “The Visual Essay as Digital Publishing” for MediaCommons, the visual essay is often a hybrid of documentary filmmaking and academic scholarship. Aside from describing a spectrum of visual essay approaches defined by two poles (the persuasive and the poetic), I have been reluctant to define the medium more concretely out of fear that it would ultimately stifle what it is capable of. To draw an analogy to cinema history, I feel like being asked to define what the visual essay is in 2014 is like asking Thomas Edison, the Lumière Brothers, and George Méliès to define cinema in 1896. It is a medium defined by formal diversity that owes as much as to the individual visual essay artist as it does to the perceived conventions of the form. 

That said, I’m willing to substantiate my personal definition by briefly placing it in dialogue with three texts: Bill Nichols’s seminal text Representing Reality, Orson Welles’s F for Fake, and Benjamin Sampson’s “Layers of Paradox in F for Fake.” I’ve selected Sampson’s piece for this debut issue for two reasons. First, the subject of his visual essay is a prototype of the visual essay (along with the work of Dziga Vertov, Chris Marker, and Marlon Riggs): Welles’s semi-faux documentary. Secondly, because Sampson’s text finds an admirable middle ground between a poetic form inspired by Welles’s “original” visual essay and the systematic argumentation we expect from academic scholarship.

If we begin to tease out the concept that visual essays are a hybrid of documentary and academic scholarship, what modes of documentary might F for Fake and Sampson’s visual essay occupy? Bill Nichols describes four modes of representation: the expository, the observational, the interactive, and the reflexive. Welles’s film - which incorporates and re-edits footage shot by another filmmaker - is a mixture of reflexive and expository. For Nichols, the reflexive involves seeing and/or hearing the filmmaker engaging in a metacommentary that is “about the process of representation itself” (56). Welles continuously does this throughout F for Fake, telling us at the outset that “this is a film about trickery, fraud...about lies” and that everything we are shown by Orson for the next hour - as he sits at his editing table - will be “true and based on solid fact.” Yet, Welles counter-balances the reflexive mode with the expository mode which “addresses the viewer directly, argument about the historical world” (34). F for Fake engages in this mode by serving as Welles’s argument that authorship, the art market, and objective truth are all constructed by “experts” whose expertise should be questioned. Yet, Welles’s final “trick” - the paradox of “truthfulness” that the reflexive mode blinds the viewer of - also undercuts the expository mode. After all, how is Welles’s “expert” different from the critics (the film as an implicit response to Pauline Kael), fakers (Elmyr de Hory), and frauds (Clifford Irving) that he presents us with? He is forthright about it. As Welles slyly tells the viewer at the end, “I did promise that for one hour, I’d tell you only the truth. That hour, ladies and gentlemen, is over. For the past seventeen minutes, I’ve been lying my head off.” 

While Welles’s visual essay represents a hybrid of Nichols’s reflexive and expository modes, Sampson’s visual essay shares its hybridity but places its emphasis on the latter. Admittedly, Sampson’s first title card tells us that “The poetic montage of F for Fake inspired the editing style of this essay” and his continuous deconstruction of a deconstruction has a reflexive edge, begging the question as to if any visual essay can be classified as not being inherently reflexive. However, Sampson - unlike Welles - is not repurposing footage to interrogate the notion of objective truth. In fact, he is making a specific argument - based on the mobilization of expert evidence (Joseph McBride, Jonathan Rosenbaum) - that the “first person singular” of Welles’s visual essay is a veiled defense of the legacy of Citizen Kane: “the art is much more important than the artist and the artist is much more important than the art. That both are most important.” Essentially, while Welles’s visual essay is skeptical of objective truth and “experts,” Sampson’s visual essay is the converse in theme and format. However, lest this be interpreted as a short-coming of the essay, Sampson’s piece is an admirable example of the capabilities of the visual essay format because his reflexive formal approach - inspired by Welles’s own poetic license - is counter-balanced by the researched intellectual rigor that meets the demands of academia. After all, Welles is making art about art; Sampson is making an argument about art. 

Works cited

  • Keathley, Christian. 2011. “La Caméra-Stylo: Notes on Video Criticism and Cinephilia.” In The Language and Style of Film Criticism, ed. Alex Clayton and Andrew Klevan, 176-191. London: Routledge
  • McBride, Joseph. 1996. Orson Welles. Boston: Da Capo Press. 
  • Morton, Drew. 2013. “The Visual Essay as Digital Publishing.” MediaCommons. Online at:
  • Naremore, James. 1989. The Magical World of Orson Welles. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press.  
  • Nichols, Bill. 1991. Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.