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.
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 photographs, and especially snapshots, extends all the way back to a childhood devoid of photographs. 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York, home of the George Eastman House, West spent a week digging through boxes of advertisements (both published and unpublished) and documents ranging in date from 1888 to 1932. Her research eventually resulted in Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia (2000), an interdisciplinary study that examines the advertising campaigns of the Eastman Kodak Company and reveals certain key fascinations in late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century American culture.
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.”
West teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses in the English Department on subjects bridging—like her research—the literary with the visual. She offers courses, for example, on British literature, film history, crime films, film adaptation of novels, novel illustration, and photography.
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?”