It is said that we live in the time when the essay goes through its resurrection as a popular, important and widely applicable literary genre, after a pretty long hiatus. It is probably due to the effects of prevailing Internet culture that again turned the essay into, as Aldous Huxley once put it, “a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything”. However, as a notable reflection of modern Zeitgeist, essay can hardly be considered just a literary form – this term appears over and over again in other, at a glance unrelated media.
One of the most characteristic results of this synergetic development is the so-called essay film – a genre of film-making that gets increasingly more popular, especially in the indie scene. Eschewing the idea of a plot and linear progression, they instead concentrate on development of a theme or idea, similar to more traditional, written essays. A film essay may be a documentary, but it isn’t necessary – it may be something as simple as a video sequence accompanying the author’s reading of an essay, or a combination of fiction and documentary, or something else entirely – just like normal essays, a film essay is rather vague in its boundaries and gives its creator great freedom of expression.
Another unexpected medium that gets connected with the term ‘essay’ more and more often is photography. A photographic essay, basically, is a collection of photographs aimed at exploring a particular theme, either by means of pure imagery or combining it with text. Again, the word ‘essay’ in the name is used to distinguish them from traditional collections of photographs.
All these peculiar genres have seemingly little in common, but they are all, in this or that sense, essays. Perhaps we should perceive the word ‘essay’ as a kind of blanket term used to define everything that doesn’t fit neatly into the habitual pre-arranged categories. After all, even in its primary meaning the essay is rather vague, which is further emphasized in Huxley’s definition. Usually we call an essay everything we cannot call something else: which is neither an article nor a short story, neither a speech nor a treatise.
Perhaps in time we will create new, more specialized terms to define film and photo essays. In case of photographic essays this ambiguity reaches even greater heights: the term can denote a simple sequence of photographs with or without captions supposed to be viewed in a particular order, a chaotic collection the viewer can look at in any order he or she pleases, a full-fledged essay accompanied by photos or anything in between. In other words, it seems that we tend to use the word ‘essay’ when we talk about some artistic creation for which we don’t have a better term.
Anyway, today we hear about essays everywhere: on radio, on television, the Internet is full of them – which only shows that this form suits the modern reality perfectly, probably much better than the time it was created.