Monday, October 28, 2013

Eight Girls Taking Pictures by Whitney Otto

Good morning, as you readers know, we are very fortunate to have  many fine writers in the Northwest and in particular in Portland. Today I want to talk to you about one of these local authors, Whitney Otto, and her 2012 novel Eight Girls Taking Pictures. I was fortunate to have been given the chance to read most of this ambitious book in an early draft form and then to read it again in its published form. For the second reading I adopted a method of reading that had been suggested to me by a colleague and fellow-reader, Tony Wolk. He and I are both nearly fierce admirers of the Canadian writer, Alice Munro. When Munro came out with her last collection of stories, Dear Life, Tony and I both bought it immediately. Knowing of my love for her, Tony asked me if I had immediately gobbled it up, and I confessed that I had read it all over the course of a day or two. When I turned the same question on him, he answered that he was allowing himself only one story at a time, forcing himself to read some other book between each story. I recalled having treated certain desserts like that as a child, and rather regretted not having employed a similar delaying or drawing out strategy in my own reading. 

Thus, when I got my copy of Eight Girls,  I decided to read just one section about one photographer at a time. Besides wanting to savor the stories, I had also noticed in my quicker reading of the early draft, the lives and stories of the women had run together, and I wanted to keep them distinct. I’m glad I decided on this method if for no other reason than that it did prolong the treat. Since I have also heard Whitney talk about the writing of the book, I know that she did extensive reading of her own on many of the women photographers discussed as well as a lot of historical accounts of the times in which they lived. As she says in the “Author’s Note” at the end, “This book is a work of fiction inspired by several real women photographers whose lives and work have influenced my own.” While I appreciate the author’s cautionary warning, it is obvious that she knows so much about these women and that she loves them for the struggles they went through in order to do their art. I’m impressed not only by her understanding of the lives of the women but also by her incredible grasp of the historical events that shaped their lives and the course of events in the last century. While this book could not have been written without the imaginative skill of the author, neither would it have been the fascinating and comprehensive book it is without the extensive knowledge the author has of these historical figures.

The lives of the eight woman span all of the 20th century, and the constant theme of the stories is the incredible struggle it was for them do their art in the context of the predominantly sexist climates of the times in which they grew up. The first six stories are based squarely on the lives and works of six real-life photographers: Imogene Cunningham, Madame Yevonda, Tina Moddotti, Lee Miller, Greta Stern and Ruth Orkin, and are presented in that order although the names of the women are changed. The last two stories are based on actual photographs, but the two characters are created by Whitney Otto. Most of the eight woman   had progressive fathers or partners who encouraged them to act on their talents and passion, but, nevertheless, trying to balance their lives as daughters, spouses, mothers and artists was more than simply daunting. Even had Whitney Otto not set out to write a feminist book, it would have been impossible to study the lives of these women and their attempts to be recognized in a male-dominated profession and world and not in the end create a distinctly feminist work. I find the book to be incredibly fair and kind to the men described and yet utterly honest in describing struggles that men with similar talents and passions would not have encountered.

The first story, that of Cymbeline Kelly, begins in 1917; she has agreed to marry her photographer husband because they have promised each other not to live like everyone else. Cymbeline occurs in the eighth story as well, although at a much later age. Their promise not to live like everyone else is soon tested by children arriving and trying to balance the lives of two already successful photographers. 

I don’t intend even to  provide  a sketch of each of the eight photographers; that will be accomplished much better by reading the book, but I do want to mention a couple of the stories that particularly caught my eye due to the author’s descriptions of and understanding of the political and economic issues underlying the stories.  One is  the story of Clara Agento which provides a rich account of the leftist politics of the time and Whitney Otto’s obvious fascination with the incredible congregation of artists and writers in Mexico City many of them there to escape political persecution in their own countries. Clara’s father’s leftist politics had acquainted her with political struggles all over the world long before her eventual travels to and imprisonment in Mexico. This section of the book reminds me of Barbara Kingsolver’s fascination with Mexico as a haven for liberal and leftist artists and intellectuals in her recent novel The Lacuna, although I would say that Otto spins out her account in a less heavy-handed manner and with more attention to the sexual and artistic liberation of the community that gathered there in addition to the political struggles.

The story of Charlotte Blum is fascinating on so many levels. It begins in March of 1927 in Berlin. The author tells us that the story begins simply from the fact that Imogen Cunningham spent a year in Dresden studying photochemistry, but that everything else in that story is spun from her imagination. Two of the characters in the story open a studio that specializes in advertising photography, and the reader is given a very plausible account  of what amounts to the origins of this whole field. While I have some understanding of the political events in Germany as the Brownshirts come to power and the systematic persecution of (among others) Gypsies, Jews and homosexuals begins, I had no idea that Berlin was a sort of counter-cultural mecca in many ways. 
One painter portrayed Berlin as the vortex of three groups: the veterans of the Great War, with their missing limbs and less visible war wounds, parked on the already crowded sidewalks; the capitalists, somehow surviving the cataclysmic cost of the war, and the consequent reparations; and the prostitutes, whom one could spend the better part of an afternoon categorizing before even addressing all the sexual appetites they satisfied.  
There was something for everyone: lesbian, gay, transvestite, transsexual, with every category of “characters” and amusements. Charlotte was reminded each morning as she observed people in late-night finery on their way home, looking a little worse for wear, that the current sex industry (both its economics and its scope) was a marker of a hallowed-out nation, something that seemed to move beyond human nature. 
That’s what it was to be young and in Berlin in those years between the wars.
Berlin made you like who you were when you were there, as if everything worth being a part of the world—all hose modern ideas about sex and art and women; all that possibility—was right there, in its dark beating heart. 
I underlined so many parts of his book, was caught by so many of the descriptions of the day to day lives and struggles of these women that trying to mention each would result in disjointed and confused muddle. Whitney Otto’s account is seamless and of a whole, but don’t take my word for it, get the book and read it yourself. 

One of the last stories, that of Miri Marx, captures the inner struggles of these women so desperate to pursue their art so intimately that the reader cannot but read it as autobiographical. The spirit of the story is captured well in one line: “Meeting one’s mate, Miri thought, was really a problem when one really liked traveling alone.” But Miri decides not only to travel with her man, David, but to marry an have children. 
And this was her paradox. She wanted to be in two places at once, to be two people at the same time. If she could split herself, one Miri would be happy spending all day with her toddling children with no thought about doing anything else. They would play with toys on the floor, or she would enthusiastically read to them. Nap when they napped. Eat when they ate. Her other self would be making movies with David. Or possibly taking pictures on her own, with no lingering regret about not having children, or not being home with the children.  
It was hard not to feel resentment that men weren’t forced ino these choices. Some days she felt that she would spend all her time trying to forget the life before children because she loved them too much to be reminded of the heat of Rome in the summer and a beautiful girl who turned heads as she walked down an Italian strada. 
I loved all of these stories, and it is obvious that the author loved and admired these women. It shines forth from every page. 

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