Paul Emanuel Byers (1920-2001) was perhaps an unlikely candidate for the serious pursuit of behavioral science. He dropped out of undergraduate studies at the University of Chicago during World War II in order to travel abroad and write. After Pearl Harbor he joined the U.S. Navy, shipped out for Australia, and soon became expert in cryptanalysis or code-breaking. Twenty years after cessation of wartime activities he was still breaking codes. Only they were no longer those transmitted by the enemy but those given off by persons communicating spontaneously.
Byers became, in short, a scholar of interaction: the more or less systematic exchange of signals among living beings. “Human behavior,” he wrote, “is patterns of patterns of patterns, decreasing in size beyond what we normally use in social seeing…. If 1/100ths of a second are not critical in behavioral analysis with our present analytic techniques, it can be demonstrated that 1/10ths of a second sometimes are.” Accordingly, he used sequential still photography to isolate the instants and reconstruct the patterns.
Some of his early studies were concerned with childhood development; later he focused on conversation analysis of the Kalahari Bushmen, the Netsilik Inuits, and the Maring of New Guinea. But Byers is best known for the book The Small Conference (1968), which he authored in conjunction with an aging Margaret Mead (1901-78). Together they applied methods used on children and Bushmen to the analysis of those who had created these methods, namely themselves and some others within their research circle. And they studied their specimens in a typical habitat—the academic conference—much as one studied bees in a beehive or Netsiliks in a tundra.
Byers first met Mead in 1951 in Australia, where he remained for a while following his naval service and worked as a staff writer for the magazine People (an Australian equivalent of America’s Life). Mead had already been famous for decades; no other anthropologist was such a household name. In that capacity she sought out young persons whose work she could foster and from whom she could learn. Hence she made use of Byers’s photography for purposes of study, and Byers paid tribute to his elder as “a teacher who can discover, illuminate, and encourage talents that are often obscure even to their possessors.”
After returning to the States in 1953, he was mainly employed as a commercial photographer. Family portraits were his specialty and they trained him, early on, in the nature of human systems. For a family was a system, almost like an organism, whose members gave and received signals as organs secrete chemicals. Moreover, the system was open: its units were aware of Byers and played to his camera. He felt himself by degrees annexed to that system; he became temporarily a part of its functioning. The groups of scientists he photographed later were ultimately no different in their systemic quality.
Byers resumed his formal education in 1959; he received the PhD from Columbia University thirteen years later. Mead was not the only factor in his late-career shift. Contact with Gregory Bateson, the ethnographer-epistemologist, and Ray Birdwhistell, a pioneer of body motion study, brought Byers more fully into the orbit of communications research. From them he gained awareness, not only of the structure and periodicity of behavior, but also of the infinitesimally small units out of which behavior is composed. The phrase “nothing never happens” was rule of thumb in this period and the camera a means to record that which happened—to record, that is, the “patterns of patterns of patterns” of interaction constitutive of what we so innocently call life.
Academic conferences, too, have patterns of patterns of patterns, and The Small Conference looks in part at the patterns of scientists whose object of research is human communication. The ten conference participants now held up for scrutiny include Byers’s own mentors—Mead, Bateson, and Birdwhistell. They are all clearly visible in images Byers shot with his setup; and though named neither in captions nor text they are, in fact, key players in its drama. Figures B (Bateson), C (Mead), and D (Birdwhistell) are pitting themselves against an unknown Figure A, another participant whose views they reject. They do this with posture long before they do so in words. They may not even know that they are doing it. Yet a grimace shifts the conversation and a cocked head speaks volumes. Pipe and cigarette perform a kind of dance. The strength or weakness of an argument transpires in the hands. If legs and feet were visible as well, we might see another drama with different protagonists.
For Byers, these one-tenths of seconds and the micromovements during them were the physical conditions under which ideas flourish and die—where to “share a position” was more than a mere turn of phrase. It was a turn of the body. And if others did not turn, an idea was rejected. We need only look at the images to see this for ourselves. A four-minute segment of conference activity contained many such turnings and equal turns untaken.
Seth Barry Watter is a PhD candidate in the Department of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University. He is completing a dissertation titled The Human Figure on Film: Natural, Pictorial, Fictional, Institutional. From 2012 to 2016 he co-directed the Magic Lantern Cinema series in Providence, RI. His work has appeared in Camera Obscura and Grey Room.