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.
West also works in the field of Victorian Studies, yet even in this regard her work still revolves around visual culture. Recently West researched how Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations was serialized in the American magazine Harper’s Weekly from 1860-1861. Specifically interested in some of the trans-Atlantic issues involved, West considered how an American audience might have read the novel differently from a British audience and how an American illustrator drew decidedly American scenes for the British story. West argues that scholars need to pay more attention “to the places where novels were originally serialized…to look at how the stories were illustrated by different artists, and pay serious attention to those artists as collaborators on the work of the fiction.”
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 so 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!”