HOW does family duty affect a female artist? Can an artist be a mother? Or, perhaps more to the point, can a mother be an artist?
Those are among the questions American writer Whitney Otto explores in her fifth novel, all the while telling a good tale, actually eight good tales, about eight female photographers. Each chapter is a short story, all fictional accounts, of the lives of women Otto says have long inspired her.
Even with the standard "this book is a work of fiction" disclaimer on the title page, it’s still a bit confusing just how fictionalized the stories are. In the author’s note at the back, the Portland, Oregon-based writer, whose 1991 bestseller How to Make an American Quilt was made into a Hollywood movie, calls the work "an interpretation of real life and a portrayal of invented lives." She names six of the real-life photographers whose lives inspired the stories.
But the reader must do a bit of Googling and cross-referencing to work out who’s who. And it’s anyone’s guess who the unnamed photographers are, a shame as the book’s final story is one of the most compelling.
In it, the fictional Jenny Lux comes closest to successfully mixing child-raising with her photography, only to have her first book banned because of its photos of her young children nude as she faces accusations of being a bad mother.
That frustration aside, Eight Girls Taking Pictures offers an enjoyable read about women, throughout the 21st century and around the world, who broke through barriers for female artists. Otto chooses simple language and a straightforward writing style, setting up the rich details of the women’s lives. Nothing fancy here, which turns out to be the best way to tell these stories.
Perhaps the best-structured story is that of portrait photographer Madame Amadora, clearly inspired by Madame Yevonde and her development of colour photography. Amadora uses her colour photography to create a fantasy world, a world of peace, to help her husband escape what is likely post-traumatic stress, the lasting effects of the First World War.
Spoiler alert: Her exhibition is a triumph and the couple seem victorious over the husband’s war-caused demons — until, at the very end of the story, Otto reveals the date: late August 1939, the world poised on the edge of another war.
Amadora offers an example of a woman balancing work and family, but the main recurring theme is women struggling to balance motherhood against their art. Several deal with husbands, artists themselves, who renege on promises of bohemian lives in which they share domestic duties.
Some women give up and shelve their art. Others wait until children are grown, sometimes after the marriage has ended, to take up the camera again.
One of those is Cymbeline Kelley, inspired by Imogen Cunningham, an early American photography pioneer. Kelley ends her marriage over her husband’s demand she turn down her dream assignment from Vanity Fair, long after child-raising duties are done. Cunningham went on to become a fellow of the National Academy of Arts and Sciences and be granted a Guggenheim Fellowship to print her early work.
That early work, outlined in Eight Girls’ first chapter, links her story to the last, that of Lux who unknowingly obtains Kelley’s old camera and discovers unprocessed slides. Thus is some of Kelley’s most brilliant work rescued.
But while the book neatly wraps up the stories, its questions about female artists and family duty remain unanswered.
Julie Carl is the Free Press Associate Editor of Engagement.