Studying Visual Communication

Sol Worth

Edited, with an Introduction, by Larry Gross


"Worth had courage and originality enough not to take pictures for granted, but thought and struggled with some of the most difficult problems that cinematographers (and researchers in visual media) are faced with."

--Edward T. Hall

One of the central figures in the development of the study of visual communication, Sol Worth (1922-1977) was a filmmaker and painter before he turned to academic pursuits. He began with the question of how film could be understood and studied as a medium of communication and from there he moved on to the larger and more profound questions about the nature of visual media in general and the role that visual images play in shaping and constructing reality. These papers trace the development of Worth's thinking and research as he outlined the problems and issues that must be faced in the study of visual communication. By drawing upon the disciplines of anthropology, sociology, psychology, and linguistics he went further and deeper than anyone else in setting the intellectual agenda for the field.

A new volume in the Conduct and Communication series

This book was first published by:

University of Pennsylvania Press
3933 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
in 1981. It is now out of print.

This virtual version is being published with the permission of Tobia Worth and Larry Gross by the Graduate Association of Visual Antropologists at Temple University.

Copyright ©1981 by Tobia L. Worth
Introduction ©1981 by Larry Gross
All rights reserved
Printed in the United States of America

The original work was published with the support of the Haney Foundation

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data

Worth, Sol.
Studying visual communication.

(University of Pennsylvania publications in conduct
and communication)
Bibliography: p. 204
Includes index.
1. Communication--Audio-visual aids--Collected works.
2. Anthropology--Audio-visual aids--Collected works.
3.Semiotics--Collected works. I. Gross, Larry P.
1942- . II. Title. III. Series.
P93.5.W6 001.55'3 80-52807
ISBN 0-8122-7791-0 AACR2
ISBN 0-8122-1116-2 (pbk.)

For Saul Robert Hymes

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations



Sol Worth died in his sleep of a heart attack on 29 August 1977 at the age of fifty-five. In the weeks before his death, Sol had been preparing an application to the Guggenheim Foundation and a preproposal for a large-scale research project that he hoped to conduct with Jay Ruby (the preproposal is included as the appendix to this volume). Sol wanted to devote the academic year 1978-79 to writing a book that would weave together the theoretical and empirical strands of his previous work and serve as the conceptual foundation for the ambitious new endeavor that he was charting--the visual ethnography of an entire community.

In the introduction that follows this preface, I have tried to outline the development of Sol's research and writing over the course of his remarkably active, but tragically short, academic career. However, I would like to include here his own version of this story. The Guggenheim application requested a "brief narrative account of your career, describing your previous accomplishments." This request prompted Sol to write an autobiographical sketch that is uncharacteristically lacking in modesty.

My formal education was designed to educate a painter. I attended the founding class of the High School of Music and Art in New York City and then received my Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the State University of

x --- Studying Visual Communication

Iowa in 1943, studying painting with Phillip Guston. At age fifteen, one of my paintings was selected for showing in a group show of young artists at the then new Museum of Modern Art. In 1945, after serving two years in the Navy, designing posters, painting murals in training camp, serving as a helmsman on the USS Missouri, and working in Intelligence Headquarters in Hawaii, I decided not to accept a graduate assistantship in painting at Iowa and accepted instead a position as photographer and filmmaker in a commercial studio in New York. I worked there from 1946 to 1962, moving from employee to partner and owner, publishing photographs in most commercial magazines and producing and directing hundreds of films and commercials. By 1956, I had grown increasingly estranged from myself as both a creative and intellectual being, and from the Madison Avenue environment I was in. Therefore, I accepted a Fulbright Professorship to Finland to design their curriculum in Documentary and Educational Film at the University of Helsinki. I taught the first such course there and founded the Finnish Documentary Film Unit. As a teaching example of documentary film, I produced and directed the film Teatteri, which won awards at the Berlin and Cannes Film Festivals in 1957 and 1958 and has been chosen for distribution by the Museum of Modern Art.

In 1957, as a result of seeing Teatteri and reading a piece of mine in the American Scholar, I was asked by Gilbert Seldes, who was then founding the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, to consider coming there to help him design and then to teach and head what we both conceived of as a visual communications laboratory program. After trying this for several years as a part-time lecturer, I found that my interests in teaching and research overpowered whatever fears I had about leaving New York and my life there, and in 1964 I sold my business and moved to Philadelphia to devote myself to teaching and research in visual communication.

By 1965, based upon earlier research in New York, I had fully developed the research plan of teaching Navajo Indians--a people with very little exposure to or experience with film or picture-making--to use motion picture cameras and to analyze the relationship between their language and culture and the way they structured their world through film. That work, which I started in 1966--working with the anthropologist John Adair--was supported by the National Science Foundation in a series of grants starting in 1966 and continuing through 1971. This research resulted in six films, conceived, photographed, and edited by the Navajo students, several journal publications, many invited lectures here and abroad, and the book Through Navajo Eyes, analyzing the films and the process by which they were made. These films have been shown at Lincoln Center, the Edinburgh Film Festival, the Festival de Popoli in Florence, the Museum of Natural History, several television programs, and are currently being distributed by the Museum of Modern Art in the United States and the British Film Institute in Europe. Susami Hani, one of Japan's leading filmmakers, has called one of these films the Amencan film most influential upon his own work.

xi --- Preface

During this period, I was promoted from Lecturer to Associate Professor, and in 1973 to full Professor of Communication. In 1977, I was appointed Professor of Communication and Education. In 1976, I was appointed Chairman of the Undergraduate Major in Communications, a program I designed and steered through the approval process of the University Committee on Instruction. I have been elected to the University Council (the governing body of the university), chair numerous departmental and university committees, and am a member of the Editorial Supervisory Board of the University Press. In 1970, in collaboration with Margaret Mead and others, I helped found the Anthropological Film Research Institute and continue to serve on its Board of Directors; the Society for the Anthropology of Visual Communication, of which I was the first president from 1972 to 1974 and continue to serve on their Board of Directors; and Shudies in the Anthropology of Visual Communication, of which I have been editor since its inception in 1973. I am currently on the founding Board of Directors of the Semiotic Society of America, the Editorial Board of the Journal of Communication, and the Board of Advisors of the International Film Seminars. In past years I have served as Chairman of the Research Division of the University Film Association and on the boards of a variety of other film and communication societies.

Beginning in 1970, and stemming from my studies of how peoples of different cultures and groups structured their world through film, I and my students have examined the filming and photographic behavior of such groups as the Navajo, and working- and middle-class teenagers (black, white, male, and female). In 1972, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, I organized and taught (along with Jay Ruby, Carroll Williams, and Karl Heider) a summer institute where we took twenty selected doctoral students and young faculty in the social sciences and helped them to learn how to use the visual media of still cameras, motion pictures, and television for research and communication. The major purpose of the institute was to teach these researchers both how to conceptualize research in visual communication and how to use the visual media themselves to report the results of research in all forms of behavior.

As a result of these researches, publications, and teaching activities over the past decade, I have been developing a theory of visual communication based on the studies described above as well as in the publications listed in the attached bibliography, and on more recent studies concentrating on interpretive strategies as applied to all visual events. I now intend to articulate fully a theory of visual communication and its consequences for future research. This book, which is described in the "Statement of Plans," will be written during a leave that I plan to take in the academic year 1978-79. I need to be able to devote myself fully to a concerted and undivided period of writing, free of teaching, dissertation supervision, committees, other people's research, and general university duties. I need time to grapple with a large-scale articulation of a theory of visual communication.

xii --- Studying Visual Communication

In preparing this collection, I have tried to include the most important and lasting of Sol's writings, with the exception of the reports on the Navajo Filmmakers' Project, which are available in the book, Through Navajo Eyes, written by Sol and John Adair (1972). I have excluded several early papers that were either superseded by later work or seemed to me to be of lesser interest. Also omitted are several later works which were too repetitive of points made in the papers presented here.

Although Sol had a history of serious heart trouble, his death was as unexpected as it was tragic for those who knew him. Sol was an unusually vital and charismatic figure, who combined genuine intellectual passion with warm personal feeling. To be with Sol was always exciting and stimulating; to be without him is still, after three years, a painful deprivation.

After Lytton Strachey's death, his friend Dora Carrington wrote, "What is the use of 'adventures' now without you to tell them to?" For me, as for many others, some adventures will never be the same without Sol to share them with. I am grateful, however, to be able to share the papers in this book with those who knew Sol and with those who will come to know him through his contributions to the study of visual communication.

June 1980

Larry Gross

©1996 Tobia Worth/Larry Gross. All Rights Reserved.