Best-selling Portland author Whitney Otto is perhaps best known for her book How to Make an American Quilt. In that book, as in her latest novel, Eight Girls Taking Pictures, the lives of her characters are interwoven. Her novel is based on the real lives of six twentieth-century women photographers and two fictional photographers.
Northwest photographer Imogen Cunningham, who was born in Portland, is the first photographer we meet in the novel, though we come to know her as Cymbeline — a rich and textured character, much like Cunningham’s photographs. From here, the novel is structured over time and space.
Otto describes the structure her novel takes.
“I knew the women that I wanted to write about. And I knew that I didn’t want to do biographies; I wanted to do portraits … So, I needed a starting point, so I started with Imogen … it was also sort of geographic in a way. I began with the West, and as I moved east, I moved to Europe, I moved to South America, and it just naturally sort of configured, I have to say. So each chapter may begin wherever it begins, but each one ends further along in the twentieth century, so that’s the sort of impetus that pushes you along.”
The structure, however, is not dictated solely by true events. The story walks the line between fiction and nonfiction as Whitney Otto reinterprets the lives of these photographers with a new lens.
“If you go too far, it ceases to be that character, that real-life person that you’re pulling from and inspired by, and if you stick too closely, it can read too much like biography,” explains Otto. “And there are great biographies written about all these women, and so I didn’t want to do another biography; I really wanted to think about themes and stories.”
Real life is the inspiration and narrative is the vehicle for exploring themes of motherhood and professionalism, love and relationships, photography and feminism.
Fictional character Jesse Berlin, a woman in her 20s in the early 1970s, serves to explore the apparent conflicts inherent in modern feminism — a movement that, like others, is influenced by the generation before it.
“I think when we look back at historical events, like say feminism, everyone thinks it’s sort of an unbroken trajectory,” says Otto. “And it isn’t — there’s a lot of other things that happened. We always come, really, from the generation before us because we’re raised by the generation before us … [Jesse Berlin] is a feminist, she is part of this women’s art collective, but she’s also in love with this man who she doesn’t want to distress by being more successful than he is. Because at that time, there still is that feeling, that he’s the man, he needs to have the success.”
Otto’s portraits of the conflicts and tensions faced by these feminist artists are snapshots of a movement over time.
“I wanted to have [these women] very conflicted about their artistic lives and all the love they feel for the men, and the women and the children,” notes Otto.