One hundred and thirteen years ago, on December 5, 1901, American icon Walt Disney was born. This sounds entirely too long ago for a man whose legacy is still so imbued in present American popular culture. The ubiquity of this legacy shows no sign of ending anytime soon; The Disney Corporation, as well as the timeless tales that Disney himself first crafted, will likely live on for many more generations than they already have. The photograph above is one that beautifully captures Disney’s enduring legacy – and it is in honor of Disney’s lucky 113th that we reflect upon it today.
A national landmark stripped of its instant recognition ability can provide a new perspective on its meaning. This is the perspective captured in “Partners in the Morning Fog,” a photograph taken by Paul Hiffmeyer (Chief Photographer for Public Relations at Disneyland), and posted on his Disney Parks blog page.The image evokes openness in both the senses of its composition and its invitation to interpretation. Part of what makes the photo so compelling is that it depicts a Disneyland devoid of its signature bustling crowds and vibrant colors, creating an image that decidedly conveys more serious overtones than any other promotional pictures of the park. Although Hiffmeyer did not date the photo, he mentioned in the post that it was taken with his first digital SLR camera. One can safely assume that the head PR photographer for one the world’s best-known theme parks would have had his hands on one of these cameras as soon as they debuted, which would date the photo around the year 2000. Hiffmeyer called the image his “very favorite photo of this tribute to our founder.” This tribute, which is rendered somewhat less recognizable by the photo’s perspective, is the “Partners” statue in the center of Disneyland, featuring Mickey Mouse and his creator, Walt Disney.
The “Partners” statue just celebrated the 11th Anniversary of its installment on November 18 – a day that also marked the 86th “birthday” of the sculpture’s more animated subject. “Partners” not only features two of the largest icons in American popular culture; since its 1993 installation, the statue has become a Disney icon in and off itself, inspiring replicas at other Disney parks and even resulting in the creation of a “Partners” award for exceptional Disney employees. The statue’s backstory is fitting for its iconic status. “Partners” was designed and sculpted by veteran Disney animator Blaine Gibson, who had previously been tasked with creating a bust of Disney as a gift. Disney’s reaction to the gift was pricelessly characteristic of both his utilitarian, Depression-era humor, as well as his humility in not desiring to prematurely cement his legacy: “What am I going to do with this? Statues are for dead people.” Even after Disney’s passing, his wife discouraged the use of his likeness in any sort of sculpture; contrary to the wild, ubiquitous legends that Disney’s body was cryogenically frozen, it’s clear that he resisted his own immortalization.
The statue itself has been the subject of its fair share of unconfirmed legends. Oft-perpetuated stories about the statue include the notion that Disney is pointing toward his beloved trains, towards his brother Roy’s statue in Fantasyland or, most ambiguously, towards the future. This photo, especially because it’s taken from behind the statue, calls to mind the last and most abstract of these legends – a claim that is perhaps supported by the fact that an alternate design for the statue featured Disney pointing ahead using a rolled-up copy of the blueprints for the futuristic Epcot Park. The defining aesthetic and atmospheric feature of the photo – the fog – gives the scene a tone of uncertainty and obscurity, concepts more commonly associated with the future than the Happiest Place on Earth.
With its haziness and slightly grainy quality, the photo could very well be interpreted as an allusion to the uncertain future – of the theme park, the ever-evolving Disney corporation, or American society as a whole. But what actually exists behind the photo’s fog, as well as the sculptor’s expression of the statue’s meaning, suggest another possible interpretation. Anyone who has visited Disneyland, even just once, could tell you what lies, unpictured, beyond the wall of white mist: the iconic Main Street USA, a replica of Disney’s hometown of Marceline, Missouri. After the 1993 installment, Gibson allegedly told then-Disney employee (and later, “Partners” Award Recipient) Jim Korkis that “Walt was pointing down Main Street and saying to Mickey at his side, ‘Look at all the happy people who have come to visit us today.’” The fact that the sculptor intended for Disney to be pointing towards Main Street – the park’s veritable bastion of nostalgia for small town, turn-of-the-century America – suggests that the photo could illustrate a striving for the lost past, whose values have slowly been clouded by time. So the scene’s fog could then depict the moral ambiguity that continues to increase with modernization, and Disney’s orientation towards Main Street could signify that wholesome American ideals can lead us through it.
The concepts of both striving for the lost past and braving the elusive future – as well as certain visual elements of the photo – call swiftly to mind an image of another American icon: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby. The photo’s perspective of Walt’s statue from behind, with his hand extended toward the fog, corresponds eerily to a scene in The Great Gatsby in which the narrator observes the eponymous character: “…he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward – and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away…” The “single green light” is the lantern on the dock of Gatsby’s lost love Daisy, and represents among other American ideals, his longing to realize his idealized past in the future – invoked in the photo by the several lampposts.
The comparison of these two icons that the photo provokes – though it, like the photo itself, is perhaps unexpected – is certainly in some senses apt, as the two figures are both native Midwesterners whose ambitions and persistence propel them to different sorts of success. One icon is fictive in both the senses of having manufactured his identity and being a literary, rather than real-life, figure. The other’s story of success is larger-than-life, nearly unbelievable, but true. In a sense, Disney shared Gatsby’s yearning for both past and future; his park itself harbored both sentimentality for the American of yesteryear in Main Street and exploration of its ultra-modernity in Epcot. What “Partners in the Fog” ultimately captures is a pensive, satisfying message about the Americanized relationship between these two temporal extremes; both past and future lie just out of arm’s reach, anchoring us permanently, like