The Human Figure on Film

Natural, Pictorial, Institutional, Fictional

By Seth Barry Watter

Subjects: Film Studies, Aesthetics, Anthropology, Art History
Series: SUNY series, Horizons of Cinema
Hardcover : 9781438495088, 170 pages, October 2023
Paperback : 9781438495095, 170 pages, April 2024

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Table of contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: The Human Figure on Film

1. Natural (Ray L. Birdwhistell)

2. Pictorial (Victor O. Freeburg)

3. Institutional (Hortense Powdermaker)

4. Fictional (V. F. Perkins)

Coda: Indexical

Offers a fresh approach to the problem of the human figure in an age of digital cinema.


The Human Figure on Film asks what it is we look for when we look at human beings projected on a screen. People have appeared onscreen since film was invented. Nothing could be more common, and yet nothing confounds us more, than a filmed human being. Scholars and critics have attempted to reduce the mystery, creating methodologies that make this figure legible. Some of their efforts form the subject of this book.

Each chapter is devoted to a single, central concept—the natural, the pictorial, the institutional, and the fictional—that viewers have used to make sense of what they see. Each concept, in turn, is tied to the work and methods of a particular kind of historical observer: the natural historian (Ray L. Birdwhistell), the aesthete or pictorialist (Victor O. Freeburg), the anthropologist of institutions (Hortense Powdermaker), and the critic of fiction (V. F. Perkins). All of these researchers have their own interests and criteria of understanding, ranging from a microscopic look at gestures to a broad view of characters. Using a combination of critical history, biography, and formal analysis, The Human Figure on Film offers a fresh approach to the problem of figuration in an age of digital cinema. It is, at once, a cross-section of the field of film studies, a handbook of methods, and an inquiry into the nature of inquiry itself.

Seth Barry Watter is a film and media historian. His work has appeared in Grey Room, Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, Camera Obscura, Film International and elsewhere. He lives and teaches in New York.


"This is a major contribution to the ontology of film. It extends our understanding of what the human figure on film is, what it does, and some very important ways in which it has attracted scholarly attention. It is still with me, haunting my thinking and teaching about film in the present, and one can hardly ask more of a book." — Jason Jacobs, author of Reluctant Sleuths, True Detectives