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Reading the Visual

A visit with Nancy M. West, Associate Professor, English Department

By LuAnne Roth
Published: - Topics: Kodak photography photographs camera memory

The fact that Nancy M. West finds herself focusing so heavily on the visual in her research and teaching may at first seem to be “a sort of a curious thing,” but for the associate professor of English this fascination for the visual extends all the way back to a childhood devoid of photographs. “I love thinking about what photography means to people. Having grown up with very few photographs in my household, I’ve always been drawn to them,” she admits. It was no surprise, therefore, that West stumbled upon her first book project while scrounging through the bargain bin of an antique store: “I came across all of these old Kodak ads from the turn of the century, and I thought they were amazing. The images were just breathtakingly beautiful. The captions were unlike those we see now in ads. They were much more elaborate, much more descriptive. They addressed the consumer in very interesting, clever ways, and I just fell in love with them.” And at that serendipitous moment, the idea for Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia (2000) was conceived.

Traveling to Rochester, New York, home of the George Eastman House, West spent a week digging through boxes of advertisements (both published and unpublished) and documents ranging in date from 1888 to 1932. By examining the advertising campaigns of the Eastman Kodak Company, West uncovered “certain key fascinations” in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American culture. For example, responding to cultural changes occurring as the average work week was being reduced, leaving people more leisure time, Kodak’s “Vacation Days Are Kodak Days” campaign presented such messages as: “Now that you have more leisure time, why not take it with you when you’re out sailing, playing tennis, or riding your bicycle?” What West found to be so intriguing about this campaign was that “in selling the camera as a companion for leisure activities, Kodak was selling photography as a form of _play_—nothing more than having fun.” This lighthearted approach was later displaced by “an emphasis instead on photography as a form of memory.” Advertising that once celebrated leisure time, outdoor activities turned inward, “and the focus instead was on recording domestic moments, making sure you have all the necessary (and the unnecessary) photos of your children.” Pondering this transition, West notes that whereas photography began as playful adventure, “it increasingly becomes an obligation and something tied more to motherhood and parenthood,” and this change reveals much about the fears and anxieties of this time period.

Perhaps the most interesting discovery appears at the end of West’s book, where she discusses Kodak’s “Death Campaign.” Though aborted even before it was published, “there was a whole box of stuff about it in the archives, where an entire advertising campaign revolves around the idea of death—that people we know and love will die, and we should take a photograph now before we have no such memories of them.” Accompanying those messages “were these very weird, eerie images of children who died at the age of two or three with such captions as, ‘this is the last photo we have of her. Aren’t we lucky we have this photo?’” This explicit acknowledgement of tragedy, along with the admonition that consumers should take photographs—“before it’s too late”—is especially curious in light of the “Kodak Knows No Dark Days” campaign that positions photography as a way to disavow death and erase sadness. From outdoor leisure to parental obligation and even death, the history of Kodak’s advertising exposes the ways in which photography was employed during this era to frame culture.

Even when West works in the field of Victorian Studies, her research revolves around visual culture. Recently, she researched how Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations was serialized in the American magazine Harper’s Weekly from 1860-1861. Specifically interested in trans-Atlantic issues involved, for example, in how an American audience might read a novel differently from a British audience, West turned to the images accompanying the serials.

“British illustrators do so much with the details of the fabric of English life in the nineteenth century,” explains West, yet in the Harper’s Weekly serials, illustrator John McLenan was an American who had never been to England, “so he had to create landscapes that were somewhat neutral, or convey the meanings of the novel…in more American ways.” This situation raises all sorts of questions, including: “How was an American audience reading this novel? What does it mean in the historical context of the Civil War? And how does an American illustrator decide which images to use?” There is irony in the fact that these illustrations, which depict “celebrations of decidedly American activities,” were used to illustrate a British novel. As such, West argues: “We need to pay more attention to the places where novels were originally serialized, to how the stories were illustrated by different artists, and pay serious attention to those artists as collaborators…on the work of the fiction.”

West’s current book project is tentatively called From Celluloid to Tabloid, in collaboration with MU alumna Penelope Pelizzon (University of Connecticut), and addresses the relationship between Hollywood crime films and tabloid journalism from the 1920s through the 1940s. Unlike the tabloids of today, which West decries as “pretty trashy scandal magazines and newspapers…often designed to expose and ruin people’s careers,” the tabloids of this earlier era contain much more liveliness and inventiveness. “Although the cliché is that the tabloids have always been pitched to the uneducated…these early ones from the 1920s are surprisingly literary, replete with metaphorical word play, allusions, wit, and irony.” Tabloid writers often went on to become screenwriters for Hollywood and celebrated novelists. Beyond their literary value, these tabloids also teach us about urban culture and modernity, especially about New York in the 1920s and 1930s. They invite reader participation, for example asking readers to participate in such venues as “True Confessions” columns.

What interests West and Pelizzon most is how these newspapers “flagrantly violate the borders between fiction and fact and subvert mainstream journalism.” For example, West explains, “they’ll take one crime case and present coverage of it. This coverage is supposed to be the actual news, but it is so stylistic that it reads like a piece of fiction. Then they would take that same event and hire a fiction writer to adapt it as a short story or novella to be run the following week. Then someone might write a column on it, and there might be a series of cartoons about it.” In short, multiple processes of adaptation occur within a short period of time and from one source or event. Hence, West and Pelizzon refer to these tabloids as “adaptation-ready sites,” because they know how to spin information so quickly from a single source.

They also found that these tabloids inscribed themselves as well on Hollywood. Not only did a number of writers migrate from tabloids to Hollywood, but Hollywood screenwriters were also busy adapting stories from the tabloids for the screen. Even Hollywood’s advertising borrowed heavily from tabloid strategy, drawing upon the visual aesthetic of Weegee (aka Arthur Fellig), the famous crime scene photographer: “so we are looking at this rich exchange between these newspapers and Hollywood and why the tabloids finally die out in popularity in the late 1940s.”

With her continual interest in adaptation study, West has already visualized her next research project, which will reflect on what it means to adapt a novel to the screen, specifically in the case of Masterpiece Theatre_. “_Masterpiece Theatre fascinates me because it’s an example of what’s called ‘good television.’” Released in the 1970s, it was “designed to appeal to more intellectual, educated viewers. It was designed for our parents,” reports West, and for years it thrived on that identity. “But if you watch Masterpiece Theatre now, it’s totally different…. It’s clearly geared to a much younger audience. Instead of writing faithful adaptation, they radically re-write the plots, interject back-stories, introduce new characters, and use some of Hollywood’s hottest actors to play the roles. They are tailoring these films toward a twenty-first-century audience—a younger one, a sexier one, one that is impatient with the idea of fidelity, one that wants a more experimental adaptation.” West plans to look at Masterpiece Theatre’s last ten years to see what those experiments might reveal. “If nothing else,” she jokes, “it will allow me to watch a lot of old Masterpiece Theatre episodes with my mother, who is a huge fan!”

In a broader perspective, West reflects on how “the personal often guides professional motivation.” Recalling how she chose her career, she recounts how before graduating from Rutgers University she had planned to go to law school. Attending a career day event, West watched an attorney, who “looked so beleaguered and unimpassioned,” talk about a career in law. As things turned out, “she was followed by an English professor, who totally enchanted me. And that was it!” At a time when the job market “was just awful” for English, West recalls her professors advising her: “Don’t do it…. You’re not going to be able to get a job in English. You’re just going to waste your time. You’re just going to end up really sad and disappointed. Don’t do it.” Determined, West says, “I just thought, this is a part of who I am. I just had an instinct that it was going to be okay, so I did it, and I never regretted it.” Because of this life-changing moment, West responds differently to students curious about pursuing English in graduate school: “You have a really hard road in front of you in terms of the job market, and there is a good chance that you won’t find a job right away. But if this is who you are, if it is part of your being, if you can’t imagine yourself not doing it, then you really don’t have a choice, do you?”