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Whitney Otto: The Powells.com Interview

As a writer, Whitney Otto is a democrat. Her tendency is to tell a story through a plurality of voices, to refract her narrative through a prism of perspectives. This is most obvious in her bestselling first novel, How to Make an American Quilt, whose central metaphor is literally a collection of discarded bits of cloth pieced together into a cohesive whole, but the theme recurs in all her work. Her new novel is no exception.

Each chapter in her new book, Eight Girls Taking Pictures, tells the story of one woman photographer. Six of the eight are based on historical figures, though Otto changed the names and played freely with the facts of their lives. So, Imogen Cunningham becomes Cymbeline Kelley, Madame Yevonde becomes Amadora Allesbury, Tina Modotti becomes Clara Argento, etc. The final two photographers are invented entirely, though their work is based on the work of photographers Judy Dater and Sally Mann.

It's an interesting, engaging experiment. Through the fascinating lives of these eight unconventional women, the reader not only travels the arc of 20th century history, technology, and art but is brought face to face with the particular struggles creative women faced in the past century. As author Sena Jeter Naslund put it, "What makes Eight Girls Taking Pictures so remarkable is its simultaneous sharp focus and wide-angle lens."

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C. P. Farley: Why did you want to do a book on photography?

Whitney Otto: I didn't really want to do a book on photography. I wanted to do a book on these women who were photographers.I didn't really want to do a book on photography. I wanted to do a book on these women who were photographers. They were all women whose work I liked before I knew about their lives in general. The exception would probably be Lee Miller. I knew more about her life as a muse and as a model than I did as a photographer. I didn't know she was a photographer, actually.

Farley: And she was a really interesting photographer.

Otto: Yes, very surrealist. And that's the other thing that's interesting about all these women. Even if they started out more traditionally, they all had a more modern take. Miller was a surrealist. Grete Stern was a collagist. Modotti... she was very, very modernist. Imogen Cunningham started out in an era when photography was still being used in a very painterly way: using soft focus, trying to replicate what paintings did. Then all of a sudden it was like, wait a minute, this is a whole different medium!

Farley: Sort of like early films, which were filmed more like stage plays, until they figured out the possibilities of film.

Otto: Right, it was the same thing, where suddenly filmmakers realized that they had other tools. Imogen Cunningham was a member of the group f/64 with Edward Weston and Ansel Adams and several other photographers. They wanted to use available light. They wanted everything to be as natural as possible, which was sort of like the antithesis of the painterly, soft-focus, allegorical stuff that early photographers had been doing.

Farley: One of the other photographers you write about, Madame Yevonde, did do a lot of allegorical stuff, but she was also doing something else that was really new — with color. Her photos are crazy.

Otto: Yes, her stuff looks so contemporary it's unbelievable. She's great. I mean, that really heavy color saturation, and that kind of wink and a nod, juxtaposing subject matter that was very classical, like the goddess photographs she did, with very modern techniques. Like giving a robed woman a Nazi helmet and a handgun — and she's Athena. She's one of the first photographers I absolutely loved in my life. She's not very well known here, actually, even today. I discovered her when I was in England. But the Internet has really brought everybody to fore.

Farley: A good deal of the book is focused on photographers in the first half of the 20th century. Did you focus on this era deliberately?

Otto: Well, again, I wasn't so much interested in photography as I was interested in these women, who all were photographers. I'm not really interested in writing about writers or writing. But photography is very much like writing to me because it can be a service — you can pay people to do it — or it can be an art form. Or it can be both at the same time. Writing kind of does that same thing. That's a connection for me.

Originally, I want to say in the '90s, I was going to write a memoirish thing, and I thought one section of this book would be about my cultural heroes. They'd be a sort of filter through which I could view my life. Of course, I never ended up finishing that, and in the early 2000s, I realized I was getting interested in these various photographers and their work and their lives. So I thought, I'll write about them.

It started out, in 2003, as a nonfiction book about these eight women photographers. But I always wanted to do a fictional version, too. I thought it would be cool to do two books that draw on the same material, one nonfiction, one fiction; they'd be these companion pieces. The only problem with the nonfiction version was that I thought nobody would buy it! [Laughter] So, I put it down for a few years. Then, when I went to pick it up again, I thought, I just want to do the fiction part.

With each of these women, I didn't want to write full biographies. I wasn't interested in their entire lives, just aspects of their lives or aspects of their work. I wanted bits and pieces. I thought, What is the one thing I want to say about each of these women? Then I realized the sum of their lives formed this 20th century arc.

So if you look at it, the book may start in 1909 and then it ends around 1927. The second chapter picks up again probably in 1900, but then it ends at the eve of the Second World War. Then it picks up again. The beginning of each chapter backtracks substantially, but it will always pull you further into the 20th century. That wasn't really by design, I'm sorry to say. [Laughter] It was just more by interest, because that was where their stories ended for me, or the interest ended for me.

Farley: In writing about these women, though, you blended fact and fiction very freely. The basic narrative arcs of their lives follow those of the historical women, but you gave them new names and identities, and in many cases invented much of the details of their lives. How did you decide on the balance between fact and fiction in this book?

Otto: Well, you know, I think for anyone who's going to write a fictional treatment of an actual life, if you get too far away from it, it's no longer that life. You've got to stay close enough to the facts so that the connection is made. But as a writer, you want to have the freedom to invent, to edit, to add — whatever you want to do. I can't speak for other writers, but I kind of distilled down what I wanted, and once I had what I wanted... it's not that the rest isn't interesting to me, but I leave that to the biographers.

And also I wanted to express certain ideas in my book, and so I wanted to use... I hate to say "use," but I wanted to use their lives in certain ways to express those ideas, which is different than a biographer who may have a certain point of view about their life but their main objective is to say, "They did this, and they did this, and they did this, and they did this."

Farley: It's the difference between photography as photojournalism and photography as art. They have different goals. Reminds me of the section on Cymbeline, where Julius, trying to help Cymbeline deepen her photography, tells her: "I'm not asking you to find the thing in a subject that engages you — rather, I am suggesting you see that subject in a whole new way — as photographer, see it so that everything will interest you."

Otto: Yes. I think if you are a creative person, you're always curious. You may not be inspired, but you're seldom bored.I think if you are a creative person, you're always curious. You may not be inspired, but you're seldom bored. That's partly why you'll go to the party you had no intention of going to or the place you had no intention of visiting, because there might be inspiration. There might not be, but you're willing to check it out. If you want to be a creative person, you have to be curious. You can't see the world in black and white.

And it doesn't mean that inside you might not be the prig of the world or something. But there has to be a part of you that withholds judgment, or you're not going to get entry into the world. If every time someone tells you something, you say right away, "I will not," or, "You can't do that," or "No, that's wrong," or, "I can't hear that," then they're not going to tell you things anymore. But more than that, when you're judgmental, you cut yourself off.

And you can be listening to someone's story and thinking, Oh my God, wait until I tell this one to my friend! And that's fine. But in the moment, you have to be... you have to be genuine, I guess. I don't think you should egg people on to tell you things that they shouldn't. I don't think that's the right thing to do. But I do think that if you're a creative person, your interest is genuine. You can be hearing some outrageous thing. In that moment, you're probably thinking, Oh my God, please don't stop talking! [Laughter]

But — and this might sound kind of goofy — but I think you have to lean more towards love than hate, in a way.

Farley: You have to be open to the world.

Otto: Yes, you've got to be open or you're not going to see. And in the case of Cymbeline, she's a young woman figuring out what the arts are, and she lucks into this trip to Germany to study chemistry and gets to study with this guy. But she's still a developing photographer. She's still taking these sort of allegorical pictures: Oh, look, here's Adam and Eve. Here's Sisyphus beside the lake in soft focus.

She goes there still unsure who she is as a photographer. And, I think, that's actually how a lot of people go about being. You realize you've got these creative impulses, but you don't have an outlet for them. You don't have the skill. You don't have… something yet. You just know the world is hitting you a certain way, but you don't know what that means.

You think, Am I just a weirdo? [Laughter] I mean, what is it? You know that you've got this kind of endless curiosity, but you don't know why. I don't think people think, Now I'm going to paint. This is what I do. Even if they paint, they have to sit down and think, Why am I doing this? Why is putting color on canvas important to me?

Farley: And the first step in your creative life might be simply copying things that everyone else has already done, but not finding what you want to do until you finally realize, Oh, that's how that other guy sees the world. But I don't see it that way. I see it this way.

Otto: Exactly. You begin with appreciation. You begin with feeling. And so, I think, with this character, Cymbeline, she's at that point where she's got a camera and she's taking pictures. But she hasn't found her subject. She feels more than she knows, in a way. She's not quite directed yet. And then she has this relationship with Julius, who is her teacher, but they're also connecting on another level, too, so he's not limited to being her teacher.

And she does fall in love with him. Of course, it's not going to work out. [Laughter] There's a real fundamental flaw with them! [Julius is gay.] But he's trying to teach her from the beginning to always look beneath something. Initially it's like, there's a flower, but it's not limited to being a flower. There's something else going on. Find that something else. And it sort of dawns on her that she has to always look deeper. She learns to widen her view.

Farley: Yes, today, everyone is a photographer. There are more technically competent photographers out there than ever before. But that doesn't mean that their photographs are interesting.

Otto: Yes. I was at a local show a few months ago, and it was mostly these snapshot portraits. Everything about them was technically correct. They were framed right. The lighting was right. But once I'd seen them, I really didn't have the urge to see them a second time. I thought, Okay, now I've seen your picture album...

Farley: They didn't evoke anything in you.

Otto: Right.

The Unmade Bed by Imogen Cunningham

Farley: Like The Unmade Bed. There's not much to the image — it's just an unmade bed with some women's hairpins on it — but it clearly evokes something in you.

Otto: Yes, it literally opens the book. It's on the first page. I love that picture, but I don't know the real story. In my book, it's in Berlin in 1910. But that's what I love about photography; it's open to interpretation. You can see what's in the photograph: it's a bed; it's got clips. But you can't tell what kind of day it is. You don't know what the location is. You don't know what the circumstances are. You don't know anything about it, so you're just free to invent.

It encapsulates how I feel about writing a book that's inspired by real people. There are the known facts of their lives, but you can expand them and move them around. You still keep the primary image, but you think, maybe the hair clips belonged to a girlfriend, a mother, a child... You don't know.

There are a million stories you could tell that relate to photographers and/or photography. But for me, it was these women who I had loved for so many years. I wanted to say some things about the creative life and needed a vehicle to say it, and they were the perfect vehicle for that.

Farley: So, to become an artist, you need to learn to see the underneath. But, as you say in the book, an artist also needs solitude and silence to create. And finding this space can be different for a woman than for a man.

Otto: For years, let's say even up to the 2000s, if I went to a showing of a male artist or a reading of a male writer, he was often asked about his prospects or what he's going to write next. But a woman writer is often asked, "Are you married?" or "Do you have kids?" The subtext is, "When do you write?" And the sub-subtext is, "Your family must come first, so writing must be somewhere down that list. So do you get up at five in the morning and do it? Do you stay up after midnight?"

With men, the assumption is that what you do is at the center of your home life. Everything revolves around what you do; everything revolves around your need to write, or whatever it is.

With a woman, her writing's on the periphery because the idea is that she's got to run this household, even if that's not true in most cases. I mean, many of the male writers I know, they stayed home with the kids at least half the time while their wives were out working somewhere else. That's actually the truth of it, much of the time. But the perception is still that everyone makes way for a man, whereas a woman has to find a way to carve out time for herselfthe perception is still that everyone makes way for a man, whereas a woman has to find a way to carve out time for herself.

Sometimes I think people have an expectation when they read a book by a woman writer. Someone once wrote about me, "Oh, she doesn't write about mothers!" And I thought, Don't you have enough mother-daughter stories in your life? Because I know there are about a billion of them. I don't write about mothers and daughters. When have I ever done that? Never! Even How to Make an American Quilt — that's not a mother and daughter story. It never has been.

And yet I've been on panels with these mother-daughter writers, and I think, Okay, but that's not what I write about. But the daughter-father thing, that interests me. Or mother-sons, that interests me. But the mother-daughter kind of deal, it's been done and done and done and done and done!

Farley: Yes, I noticed in the book that you don't write much about the relationships between the women photographers and their mothers. But they all have very strong relationships with their fathers. And the fathers in the book all fit a certain type. They're very mechanical-inventor types. They give their daughters a lot of freedom and attention. They treat them like a boy, really. I was curious if that was something that you noticed or is that something you found in a historical record?

Otto: Yes, historically they all had these great, interesting relationships with their fathers. The fathers came from every social class. Whether they owned a company or worked in a factory, the fathers were all mechanical-inventor types, and they all were very, very progressive with regard to their daughters, though they were not as progressive in regard to their wives or women in general. It wasn't because their daughters were surrogate sons. A number of them also had sons, so they weren't treating them like a surrogate son. They were fully aware they were girls.

But it's also true that your father can be really progressive — he can raise you to be whatever you want to be — but if society doesn't support that... it's like being trained to be a brain surgeon but not being allowed in the operating room. So when these women are sort of kept back or quote-unquote "oppressed," it's really more of a societal thing than a personal thing.

Farley: And yet these women made their way in a very technical field. Especially back then, photography was very technologically complicated.

Otto: That's one of the things that attracts me to it. I love that intersection of science and art, which is perfectly encapsulated in photography, though perhaps not as much today. That's why, with Imogen Cunningham in real life, and my character in the book, she gets her college degree in chemistry. She goes to Germany and studies under this very well-known photochemist. And they were called photochemists. I mean, it wasn't easy. She couldn't have majored in photography or art back then. It didn't exist.

It seemed to me these girls probably grew up with an interest in what their fathers were interested in. They were like their fathers' little buddy, so they were probably really receptive.

Farley: Also, back then, there probably weren't many avenues open to a mechanically or technically minded girl. In the '20s, she couldn't very easily go join an engineering program. Whereas in photography, which was a relatively new field, she would be able to tap into her left brain a little more.

Otto: Yes, it probably was a good outlet for them. It was very modern. A lot of these women were not traditionalists. They were really drawn to whatever was modern or new or progressive or experimental.

Farley: So, did you have that kind of relationship with your father?

Otto: [Laughs] No! My father was very mechanical. He was an engineer. He was very quiet and aloof, and very, very smart. He was already done with his Master's when he was 20, and he always had a million interests in everything. But he wasn't a personality. He was a really quiet man. But he knew tons of stuff. He just always amazed me. Anything from a 14th-century religious movement to how to wire... Even when he was retired, he was thinking about going back to school and maybe getting a doctorate in computers, which wasn't usual for people in his age group. But he went on archaeological digs, and he lived in Saudi Arabia. He did all kinds of stuff.

Farley: So being open and interested and curious was very much encouraged in your household?

Otto: Yes. But I don't think anything had to be encouraged in my household, because in my era, you barely took care of your kids. You just opened the door and said, "Come back when the lights are on." Parents didn't ask you where you went, what you did, what you ate. It was just, You're gone. You're back. Oh fuck. Okay, let's feed you dinner. Now you're gone again. We just ran wild all the time. [Laughter] My God, I can't even imagine. There were no seat belts in our car until I was in sixth grade. You were always just flying around the car.

My mom was one of the first working moms. I mean, in my grade school, there were two women who worked, and they were both divorced. My mother was working because she wanted to. She worked in advertising, and she worked in advertising in New York before that. Other moms used to yell at my mom. They'd call up and say, "Mrs. Otto, it's your turn to drive for Girl Scouts," or whatever it would be.

My mother would say, "Well, I can't do it because I'm working, so I'm going to get my neighbor to do it."

They'd say, "Don't you think you should do it?"

I mean, they'd start in on her. And I'd hear my mother getting snotty and yelling back at them. I'd be mortified. I'd think, Don't yell at those moms! They're real moms!

But no. My mom did not want to be a mom at all. I'd show up to things with the Latvian neighbor. I'd think, Not only do I have a surrogate driver, but she's a Latvian. [Laughter] I'm sorry if I can't be a WASP like the rest of you, but this is what I'm dealing with. And my mother was always really made up. She still is to this day, really made up, really done. For two years our next-door neighbors thought there were two sisters who lived in our house. One was plain and was a hausfrau. One was glamorous and went out to work.

One day in the park they said, "Where's your sister?" She goes, "I don't have a sister," because she didn't have a sister anywhere. Not anywhere. But she looked so radically different when she was done and when she was not. Maybe that's where my creativity comes from!

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