Saturday, December 8, 2012

Book Review: Eight Girls Taking Pictures

Author: Whitney Otto
Publication Date: November 6, 2012
Publisher: Scribner

Bestselling author Whitney Otto’ s Eight Girls Taking Pictures is a profoundly moving portrayal of the lives of women, imagining the thoughts and circumstances that produced eight famous female photographers of the twentieth century.

This captivating novel opens in 1917 as Cymbeline Kelley surveys the charred remains of her photography studio, destroyed in a fire started by a woman hired to help take care of the house while Cymbeline pursued her photography career. This tension— between wanting and needing to be two places at once; between domestic duty and ambition; between public and private life; between what’s seen and what’s hidden from view—echoes in the stories of the other seven women in the book.

Among them: Amadora Allesbury, who creates a world of color and whimsy in an attempt to recapture the joy lost to WWI; Clara Argento, who finds her voice working alongside socialist revolutionaries in Mexico; Lenny Van Pelt, a gorgeous model who feels more comfortable photographing the deserted towns of the French countryside after WWII than she does at a couture fashion shoot; and Miri Marx, who has traveled the world taking pictures, but also loves her quiet life as a wife and mother in her New York apartment.

“She was an artist, he said. He said, You are my kind.” – Hardcopy pg. 3

“It was a funny place for women photographers where they were accepted into the profession (usually taking soft-focus Pictorialist scenes of domesticity) – some were quite well-known – and they were always a half step behind their male counterparts.” – Hardcopy pg. 23

“Her clients were all manner of famous people – politicians, actors, actresses, writers, aristocrats. She took a picture of a lord in his coffin, and another of an ancient duchess who arrived in Amadora’s studio with her young male “assistant,” then proceeded to strip naked to the waist. She wore diamond earrings, and a diamond brooch in her unnatural red hair. George said, ‘You do get only the best people.’” – Hardcopy pg. 66

“Three things happened in 1930 for Amadora. The first was her boredom with black-and-white photography. She couldn’t understand “everyone being in love with beautiful shadows,” and when all she wanted to do was work with color. Her father’s livelihood was color. Painters worked with color. They knew that reality didn’t lie solely in line and form, contrasts of dark and light; life was color.” – Hardcopy pg. 67 & 68

“Amazing to think that her life could completely change course in the space of a single encounter; then again, the impact of chance encounters was something that she had known about for a very long time.” – Hardcopy pg. 131

I have heard a lot of things, both positive and negative, about the work of Whitney Otto. I was interested to read a piece of literature written by her and see for myself what all the fuss was about. Recently, a good friend of mine was assigned a book by Whitney Otto for a college class and she did say that it was hard for her to get into, but that once she did she found herself enjoying it. I can say the same about this book; it did take me awhile to start getting interested in what I was reading but I won’t completely throw the book under the bus. There were parts that I loved and adored, and others not so much. I am such a fan of multiple female perspectives in a novel, being the feminist that I am, so that was definitely one of my favorite parts.

I loved the take on photography and all the different women, whose lives somehow revolved around the art and perfection that is photography. This was such a rare and interesting topic to read about, and Whitney Otto definitely knew what she was talking about, or at least she had done her research on the matter. I was so caught up in the scenes that spoke to or about their careers, and I feel like I am all the more educated because of it. It really was interesting to be in the minds of these women who are artists, and really get a feel for their world. I have always been intrigued by photography and would love to practice it myself some day. If photography is a hobby of yours, or you just simply enjoy practicing it, then you may enjoy this book more than others.

The writing was beautiful and often lyrical at times, but this became redundant after awhile and I found myself wishing that things would pick up the pace. I feel like a good word to describe this book would be strange, but not in a bad way. The stories here and the writing style are not going to be for everyone because the language is so colossal and really takes time to wrap your head around through different points in the story. Many people think that they shouldn’t have to think so hard about what is happening while they are pleasure reading. I just found myself wanting to reach the climax at times, and wanting to move past long, drawn out details.

I was expecting a lot more than I got out of this novel. I did not connect with all of the female characters, and I wasn’t expecting to. I did enjoy photography over time and how each woman had a different perspective on her experiences with photography, but I didn’t necessarily feel connected to any of them. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy their stories; I just would have liked to feel more connected and involved in their lives. Overall I feel that this was a challenging story to write and I did enjoy parts of it, but I don’t think I would ever re-read it.

***Thank you to the publishers at Scribner for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review***

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