"Material without Being Real": Photography and the End of Reality in 'The Great Gatsby.'
Barrett, Laura, Studies in the Novel
The first-class compartment was stifling; the vivid advertising cards of the railroad companies--The Pont du Gard at Arles, the Amphitheatre at Orange, winter sports at Chamonix--were fresher than the long motionless sea outside. (Tender is the Night, p. 12)(1)
What I was looking at wasn't Stahr but a picture of him I cut out over and over: the eyes that flashed a sophisticated understanding at you and then darted up too soon into his wide brow with its ten thousand plots and plans; the face that was aging from within, so that there were no casual furrows of worry and vexation but a drawn ascetism as if from a silent self-set struggle--or a long illness. It was handsomer to me than all the rosy tan from Coronado to Del Monte. He was my picture, as sure as if he had been pasted on the inside of my old locker in school. (The Last Tycoon, pp. 71-72)(2)
Photography and the Jazz Age
"[T]he 1920s marked the golden age of American advertising," writes Ann Douglas, and early in the decade New York became the home of the nation's largest agencies, making "`Madison Avenue'... a synonym for the industry itself' (pp. 64-65).(3) F. Scott Fitzgerald spent the spring of 1920 at the advertising firm of Bannion, Collier. Three years later, the marketing impulse still coursing through his veins, he suggested, in an essay entitled "How I Would Sell My Book," filling a store window with copies of his latest book and placing "a man with large spectacles sitting in the midst of them, frantically engrossed in the perusal of a copy" (qtd. in Douglas, p. 67). As it turns out, Fitzgerald's following book would be The Great Gatsby, a novel deeply concerned with optics, including two images similar to the one prescribed for marketing purposes: a "stout, middle-aged man, with enormous owl-eyed spectacles"(4) surrounded by shelves of books in Gatsby's library, and the spectacled eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg (p. 49). Fitzgerald's marketing ploy, which proposes using a real man as a prop, is part and parcel of a society whose proliferation of images has distorted the relationship between original and representation.
The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg imply that God has been replaced by mass marketing, and Fitzgerald's book provides numerous examples of the way in which the omnipresence of advertisements in the 1920s went a long way toward making photographic images an intrinsic part of Americans' daily lives: when she first sees Tom, Myrtle pretends to read advertisements on the train in order to avoid staring at him; Nick recognizes Jordan from the rotogravures in the sports press; and Gatsby spends his five years away from Daisy by amassing a fortune and accumulating clippings of her from society columns. Fitzgerald's New York abounds with images that dictate reality: Gatsby affects a "strained counterfeit of perfect ease" (p. 91), while Daisy notices his resemblance to an advertisement because he "always look[s] so cool" (p. 125), and Nick thinks that Jordan "look[s] like a good illustration" (p. 185). The magazine Town Tattle proffers still images of the real people who bring to life the illusions of Hollywood films. While the title implies the magazine panders in gossip, the secrets of the rich and famous, we must question whether Town Tattle is moving closer toward reality or further from it since almost immediately after the invention of film, producers recognized the merchandising windfall in planted gossip. So, like the images that seem to offer the "real" people behind the characters, the text appears to tell a "real" story; both, however, are marketing gimmicks which call reality into question. Given this superfluity of representative imagery, it is no wonder that Daniel J. Boorstin suggests that "reality" is an endangered concept in American society: "The making of the illusions which flood our experience has become the business of America [including advertising, public relations, journalism, publishing, entertainment, travel, foreign relations] ... We are haunted not by reality but by those images we have put in place of reality" (pp. 5-6).(5)
The Great Gatsby is clearly the product of the twentieth century, in which reality is obfuscated by science, art, and history: quantum physics and cubism rendered absolute time and space obsolete, and assembly-line production replaced a unique product with endless replicas manufactured piecemeal by the ticking of a clock. Yet, the novel's nineteenth-century convictions, epitomized by the eponymous romantic hero, die hard, and The Great Gatsby is ever poised in the midst of competing impulses: reality/illusion, original/ replica, modernism/romanticism, progression/retrogression, industrialization/pastoralism, irony/sentimentality, East/West. However, it is not only Jay Gatsby's romantic tendencies that threaten modernity; his biographer's distorted picture of New York and the Midwest, the new world and the old, offers a fractured account of his time. Exploiting the popularity and ubiquity of photographs, Fitzgerald finds a technological parallel for Nick's solipsizing vision and suggests that all sight in the Jazz Age is askew.(6) "Photography," argues John Berger, "is the process of rendering observation self-conscious" (p. 292),(7) and photographic allusions in the novel serve to emphasize the mediator standing between the reader and the novel, as a photographer is stationed between viewer and subject. By complicating the concepts of reality, originality, and objectivity, photography serves as the quintessential symbol for the bifurcated era and the narrator's polarized sensibilities.(8)
Photography, which is generally associated with clarity and realism, is an instrument of instability in The Great Gatsby. A change of lighting and angle, a bit of suggestion here and illusion there, creates an entirely new person. Ranging from Chester McKee's insipidly sentimental art photographs to Gatsby's personal snapshots, seemingly straightforward mementoes of the past, the novel's fictional photographs recreate their subjects. Demonstrating his perennial vacillation between the old and the new, Gatsby, who models himself after Hopalong Cassidy, Buffalo Bill Cody, Benjamin Franklin, and Horatio Alger characters, and selects a home which is "a factual imitation of some Hotel de Ville in Normandy" (p. 9), purchases a new personality through photography. Images of Gatsby at Oxford and of his surrogate father Dan Cody endow the parvenu not only with an identity but a past.(9) Similarly, during her party, Myrtle's personality is metamorphosed with a change of clothes, which prompts Mrs. McKee, the photographer's wife, to posit that "[i]f Chester could only get you in that pose I think he could make something of it" (p. 35). The camera ultimately succeeds in transforming Myrtle from a woman into a "subject":
We all looked in silence at Mrs. Wilson who removed a strand of hair from over her eyes and looked back at us with a brilliant smile. Mr. McKee regarded her intently with his head on one side and then moved his hand back and forth slowly in front of his face. "I should change the light," he said after a moment. "I'd like to bring out the modelling of the features. And I'd try to get hold of all the back hair." "I wouldn't think of changing the light," cried Mrs. McKee. "I think it's--" Her husband said "Sh!" and we all looked at the subject again. (Pp. 35-36)
Photographs, like clothes and cosmetics, not only remake the characters in the novel, they supplant them. Indeed, photographs provide the prototypes to which people and things conform, thereby reminding us that appearances are not just deceiving: they are predetermined by prior appearances. Nick notices Chester "asleep on a chair with his fists clenched in his lap, like a photograph of a man of action" (p. 41), and Gatsby's father, while standing in his late son's mansion, looks at a photograph of the house as proof of his son's success, leaving Nick to observe that "it was more real to him now than the house itself" (p. 180).
Nick may seem skeptical of Mr. Gatz's gullibility, but he, too, has reconceived reality on the basis of photographs. He is dubious about Gatsby's autobiography, which "was like skimming hastily through a dozen magazines" (p. 71), but an authentic-looking medal unsettles his disbelief, and a photograph "of a half a dozen young men in blazers loafing in an archway …
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Publication information: Article title: "Material without Being Real": Photography and the End of Reality in 'The Great Gatsby.'. Contributors: Barrett, Laura - Author. Journal title: Studies in the Novel. Volume: 30. Issue: 4 Publication date: Winter 1998. Page number: 540. © 1999 University of North Texas. COPYRIGHT 1998 Gale Group.
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