Eight Girls Taking Pictures (Paperback)

A Novel

By Whitney Otto

Scribner, 9781451682724, 384pp.

Publication Date: June 4, 2013

Other Editions of This Title:
Digital Audiobook (11/5/2012)
Hardcover (11/6/2012)
Hardcover, Large Print (1/23/2013)

List Price: 23.99*
* Individual store prices may vary.

November 2012 Indie Next List

“Otto is masterful in telling the stories of eight women photographers -- their creative lives, their struggles balancing family and work, their politics (sexual and otherwise), and their place within the art community and the world events of the 20th century. All are skillfully presented and intricately woven together to create an unforgettable novel. Yes, it is fiction, but Otto has drawn from the real lives of gifted, renowned photographers, and the stories behind the images, whether real or imagined are compelling, inspiring and very entertaining. What a feast of a novel!”
— Cathy Langer, Tattered Cover Book Store, Denver, CO
View the List


“A moving read about the pleasures and pangs that define the lives of women” (USA TODAY) from the bestselling author of How to Make an American Quilt.

A profoundly moving portrayal of the lives of women, imagining the thoughts and events that produced eight famous female photographers of the twentieth century. Inspired by the work of Imogen Cunningham, Madame Yevonde, Tina Modotti, Grete Stern, Lee Miller, Ruth Orkin, and others, author Whitney Otto weaves together eight stories, crisscrossing the world and a century to portray the tensions that defined the lives of female artists. These memorable characters seek the extraordinary through their art, yet also find meaning and reward in the ordinary tasks of motherhood, marriage, and domesticity. This is a bold, immersive, and unforgettable novel about women in love.

About the Author

Whitney Otto is the author of five novels, including the New York Times bestseller, How to Make an American Quilt. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her family.

Praise For Eight Girls Taking Pictures: A Novel

"Thoughtful, nuanced depictions of the complexity of women's lives...Eight Girls is a moving read about the pleasures and pangs that define the lives of women."
— USA Today

"A rich ensemble novel...full of glamour and grit."
— New York Times, T. Style Magazine

" Otto’s photographers battle society’s denunciations and personal demons as they seek love, acceptance, success, and harmony. A visionary and distinctive look at the sacrifices and triumphs of daring women artists."
— Booklist

“Otto skillfully develops each character and draws the reader in with rich detail that must be the result of careful and extensive research. Highly recommended; those with an interest in photography, women’s history, or feminist literature should particularly enjoy.”
— Library Journal

"Blending Otto's saturated yet accessible prose with her talent for stitching together stories of multiple characters with a steady, glittering needle, the novel pays homage to a number of 20th-century photographers whose lives inspired its eight interwoven tales. Otto's vivid narratives of these women's lives-often bohemian, occasionally luxurious, always richly intellectual and full of love-render them as complete, complicated mediums between their cameras and a world that treats them so ambivalently."
— Portland Monthly

"The reader is captivated and transported on several levels with a book that rings with universal truths as it pays homage to eight very real ground-breaking photographers. You don’t have to be an art historian nor even like photography to love this deeply soul satisfying work. Each work is a gem to be savored and appreciated like a fine work of visual art."
— Booktrib.com

“A lovely work of fiction…Otto mixes the personal histories of her subjects with their camera-eye view of the world to create an intriguing narrative.”
— Chicago Tribune

“A tour de force. This exquisitely written novel-as-linked-stories is an impressive ode to feminism. Spanning several decades and various romantic settings…Otto’s novel highlights the challenges these women face as they attempt to balance career with family life. Like a master portraitist, Otto focuses on the details, describing studio settings as if she were staging a photograph herself.”
— BookPage

"A fascinating portrait of 20th century women exploring and establishing their artistic vision. Writing with vivid details and finely-tuned sensibility...Otto's ability to capture and corral [these women's] lives... is laudable for shedding light on this sisterhood of pioneering artists.”
— San Jose Mercury News

"Otto is certainly [a] mistress of her craft."
— New York Times Book Review

Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com

  1. Eight Girls Taking Pictures spans the greater part of the twentieth century. How did the roles of women in society change during this time? How about women artists specifically? What might 21st-century women be able to learn from the novel’s main characters?
  2. Describe Cymbeline and Leroy’s relationship. How much responsibility does she bear for her unhappy—and unfulfilling—marriage? Taking into consideration the early 1900s time period, was Cymbeline, as she says, naïve to think she could have both a creative life and children? Why or why not? Which of the other characters struggle with this same conflict? Do their struggles reflect the times in which they lived or are their challenges a function of gender rather than time?
  3. Although some of the featured photographers casually cross paths, Cymbeline is the one who most interacts with the seven other women. Why do you suppose the author chose to have her as the central link in the novel? What is the significance of Jenny finding Cymbeline’s glass plates from her time in Berlin?
  4. What are the different characters’ motivations for pursuing photography? In what ways is the art form more than a livelihood to them? How do they use photography to resolve personal problems, confront social issues, and support political causes?
  5. Discuss how the characters’ upbringings impact the directions of their lives. What similarities are there in the ways they were raised and in their parents’ attitudes and beliefs? Which of the women were aided or influenced by their fathers in particular?
  6. “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” (page 176), thinks Lenny after meeting magazine owner Kristof Nash on the street. What other chance encounters have momentous outcomes for the characters?
  7. What was your initial perception of Lenny? What elements of the story did you see in a new way after the traumatic incident in her past was revealed? Why does Lenny believe she finds her “truest self” (page 220) during her time as a World War II photojournalist?
  8. Charlotte believes that Ines “will understand better than anyone that a woman always has to choose” (page 301). Why does Charlotte decide to remain in Buenos Aires? Is her decision more of a choice between Ignacio and Ines or between creative fulfillment and a romantic relationship?
  9. Discuss how marriage is presented in Eight Girls Taking Pictures, from Clara and Laurent’s charade to Madame Amadora acquiescing to her husband’s request that they not have children. Who would you say has the most fulfilling marriage, and why?
  10. “One of the worst losses of all when one immigrated was the loss of occupation (doctor, lawyer, glass manufacturer), being as closely tied as it is to personal value and identity. To go from being ‘somebody’ to being ‘nobody’ takes its toll” (page 290), ruminates Charlotte after being forced to leave Berlin. How might this idea also apply to women who are expected to give up their careers after marrying and having children?
  11. What similarities does Cymbeline see in Miri’s cityscape images taken from a high-rise window and her own garden pictures? Miri’s other famous photos featuring Daisy in Italy were published twice, first in the 1950s and then again in the 1960s. Why do the exact same photos elicit vastly different reactions a decade apart? How do they reflect the cultural changes of the times?
  12. “This was before feminism took another odd turn…when it seemed that women were being encouraged to pursue who they really were, unless that included being a housewife, which, somehow, was no longer a politically acceptable choice” (page 337), muses Miri. How does this relate to her situation in the 1960s? How about to Jenny’s circumstances two decades later? What, overall, does the novel have to say about feminism?
  13. What does Jessie learn from Cymbeline about photography, as well as about life and relationships, during the day they spend together? Do you think Jessie stays with Emile after this? Why or why not?
  14. How do you interpret Cymbeline’s remark to Jessie that she doesn’t understand how “young women can get it so right and so wrong at the same time” (page 374)? Why does she believe things are harder for contemporary women than they were in her time?
  15. Which character’s story resonated with you the most, and why? If any of the women could go back and undo some of the choices they made, which ones do you think would do so? What would they do differently?
  16. Consider our current obsession with posting photos on Facebook and Tumblr and pinning photos on Pinterest. What do these contemporary photo essays say about our desire to document and be seen?