“Photography is this ideal marriage of art and technology,” says Portland, Ore., novelist Whitney Otto, her collection of photography books on display behind her.
In her upcoming fifth novel, Eight Girls Taking Pictures (Scribner), Otto, a photography fan, focuses on eight female photographers—six of them based on real-life photographers and two of them pure invention—whose lives and work span the 20th century. These eight “girls”—as women used to be routinely called—are inspired by photographers Otto has “loved since my youth. I didn’t just pick eight at random,” she says.
The women who serve as inspiration for Otto’s eight characters—Imogen Cunningham, Madam Yvonde, Tina Modotti, Lee Miller, Grete Stern, and Ruth Orkin—also conveniently divide themselves into separate thematic groups, which Otto wanted to explore in the novel. Otto’s categories include family and domesticity, nudes and sexuality, feminism and whimsy, and politics and war.
The first germ of an idea for this project saw it being nonfiction: “a little bit of biography, a little bit of art history, a little bit of gender studies, and a little bit of me,” Otto says. But she knew that such a book would be difficult to categorize and therefore also to publish, so years later, she decided to approach the same subjects through fiction.
Just as in her best known novel, How to Make an American Quilt (Villard, 1991), Otto is attuned to finding the balance between what she describes as “solitude versus companionship.” In order to succeed in the creative life, “whether you’re writing, painting, or making music, you need both the solitude to make that art and the connection to life to have something to write about, something to depict.”
Each of the eight characters has her own section and to Otto, the result is “a novel because when I reached the end, it felt like the end of a larger idea, rather than being the end of a collection of linked short stories.” These chapters, which detail the lives of the women from childhood to middle or old age, “rely on what comes before and what comes after.” For Otto, “The portraits get their strength from their juxtaposition to each other.” Just as in Quilt and, to some extent, her previous novels, Now You See Her (Villard, 1994) and A Collection of Beauties at the Height of Their Popularity (Random House, 2002), Otto’s narrative approach resembles a patchwork. “I think that this structure allows me to look at one idea, but through a prism,” she says, interlocking her fingers and turning them over as if to examine the connection from all sides. In Eight Girls, it’s not only the photography that ties these women together but also their shared struggles to survive in a world that more often than not relegated women to the home. Indeed, the Miriam Marx character, based on photographer Ruth Orkin, both stays at home and remains connected to her artistic passion by focusing her photographer’s eye on the Central Park tableau outside her Manhattan apartment. “It’s as if you can’t win,” she says. “It’s a never-ending circle of saying first that you don’t want to be at home and you get flak for not being there for your family, and then saying, yes, I want to be at home because I found my subject and it’s a domestic subject. Then you’re accused of not being feminist enough.”
Even without readers’ detailed knowledge of photography and photographers, Otto hopes the novel will resonate on a story level. She includes an extensive bibliography so that anyone who may be interested in the real-life counterparts of her characters will have places to feed their curiosity. “I would love people to look up these women,” she says. “I love them, I think their pictures are worth looking at, and I think their stories are worth knowing. And if this book sparks an interest in photography, how great is that?”
Jordan Foster is a freelance writer in Portland, Ore.