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Photography In the 1920s 


George Eastman (above) helped popularize the medium of photography during the 1920s.  

During chapter 2, a main theme was the photography of Mr. McKee.  His photographs were bleak examples of the medium, perhaps a result of the great popularization of photography during this decade.  This page will explain what was happening in the world of photography during the 1920s. 


During the early parts of the twentieth century until the 1920s the medium of photography was searching for widespread popular acceptance.  The production of more portable cameras by companies such as Eastman Kodak allowed almost anyone with an interest to become a photographer.  This phenomenon seems to be descried in chapter two of The Great Gatsby in the character of Chester McKee.  A self-described artist and photographer, he bores Nick with descriptions of his works on the subjects of Long Island and his wife.  During this chapter, there are extensive discussions of photography at Myrtle’s apartment.  Nick seems to think his photography is terrible, describing his portrait of George Wilson’s mother as an “ectoplasm on the wall.”  He also mocks Mrs. Lucille McKee for her vanity when she mentions “that her husband had photographed her a hundred and twenty-seven times since they had been married.”  Nick’s views probably constituted the popular view of photography during the firs few decades of the twentieth century, before photography was viewed as a true art form thanks to the work of important American photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz. 

            Fitzgerald seems to draw parallels between McKee and Stieglitz in his novel, especially in Lucille’s line about her role as Chester’s most important subject.  Alfred Stieglitz was married to the famous artist Georgia O’Keefe; and she was often the subject of his photography (Ferraiuolo).  With this connection made, a study of Stieglitz would be helpful in understanding chapter two. 

                Stieglitz’s passion for photography was visible at the early age of 11, and he continued his fascination by studying photography in Berlin during the 1880s.  By the turn of the century, his photographs of urban scenes in Paris and New York were becoming famous.  He advocated the use of hand-held cameras, which was another method that helped bring photography to the common person.  He also started a photography themed periodical named “Camera Work” that would help amateur photographers by giving them advice. Stieglitz also thought of photography as more viable form than the art world had previously given it credit for.  Stieglitz acknowledged that a camera had much less flexibility than paint, so he justified photography as an art by saying that photographers had the responsibility of capturing a subject at the moment where it is in its “truest” form.  He summarized these feelings by saying, “The moment dictates for me what I must do.  I have no theory about what the moment should bring, I simply react to the moment…I am the moment.”   He wanted to find a way to represent reality at a more direct level than painting. 

                 Stieglitzs’ views on amateur photography really help to cement his position as a man who wanted to bring photography to the masses.  His views were generally that the photograph was relevant above all other factors, even the photographer’s experience, saying “"Let me here call attention to one of the most universally popular mistakes that have to do with photography - that of classing supposedly excellent work as professional, and using the term amateur to convey the idea of immature productions and to excuse atrociously poor photographs. As a matter of fact nearly all the greatest work is being, and has always been done, by those who are following photography for the love of it, and not merely for financial reasons. As the name implies, an amateur is one who works for love; and viewed in this light the incorrectness of the popular classification is readily apparent."
His acceptance of amateurs seems to mirror his wish for acceptance into the world of fine art, which would be realized when 24 of his photographs were displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1924.

Works Cited

Ferraiuolo, Gianina.  The Great Gatsby: 1920s World of Photography. 5 Mar. 1999.  23 Jan. 2004


Leggat, Robert. Amateur Photographers.  30 Aug. 2001.  23 Jan. 2004 <>
Leggat, Robert. Stieglitz, Alfred.  30 Aug. 2001.  23 Jan. 2004 <>
The "Objective" photography of Alfred Stieglitz from Bram Dijkstra's Cubism, Stieglitz, and the Early Poetry of William Carlos Williams.