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.
Asked to recommend films from this era “where you have journalists exhibiting all the characteristics of gangsters,” the first two films West mentions are The Picture Snatcher (1933) and Blessed Event (1932), which were produced just as the gangster film genre seemed to be disappearing from the Hollywood screen, owing to the Production Code’s restrictions. But Hollywood—in its need to continue profiting from the gangster’s popularity—found ways to “get around the censors,” explains West. “All of the gangster’s characteristics (his penchant for violence, his street smarts, his flashy style, his witty repartee) are put into the figure of the newspaper reporter,” who rarely works for a legitimate newspaper, West adds, but for a tabloid newspaper—“So, they get to have it both ways!” In the area of noir documentaries, where filmmakers experimented by combining film noir style with a documentary style, West recommends Naked City (1948).
Reflecting on “the ways in which personal interests affect the professional and how personal motivation often guides professional motivation,” West recalls a story about how she chose her career. “When I was in college at Rutgers University, I thought I would go to law school…. I was very committed to that…. Then one day it was career day, and a lawyer came and talked about her work. She looked so beleaguered and so unimpassioned. And she was followed by an English professor, who totally enchanted me. And that was it! I already had the law school applications and thought, ‘I can’t do this,’ and I told my professors. This was at one of the moments when the job market was just awful, and they told me, ‘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.’ 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 tells 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?”