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Authors: Whitney Otto

Tags: #Historical, #Romance, #Feminism, #Art, #Adult

Eight Girls Taking Pictures

BOOK: Eight Girls Taking Pictures
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Eight Girls Taking Pictures
Otto, Whitney
Scribner (2012)
Rating:
***
Tags:
Historical, Romance, Feminism, Art, Adult

Bestselling author Whitney Otto s
Eight Girls Taking Pictures
i s 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 whats seen and whats hidden from viewechoes 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. Crisscrossing the world and a century,
Eight Girls Taking Pictures
is an affecting meditation on the conflicts women face and the choices they make. These memorable characters seek extraordinary lives through their work, yet they also find meaning and reward in the ordinary tasks of motherhood, marriage, and domesticity. Most of all, this novel is a vivid portrait of women in lovein love with men, other women, children, their careers, beauty, and freedom.

As she did in her bestselling novel
How to Make an American Quilt,
Whitney Otto offers a finely woven, textured inquiry into the intersecting lives of women.
Eight Girls Taking Pictures
is her most ambitious book: a bold, immersive, and unforgettable narrative that shows how the art, loves, and lives of the past influence our present.

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CONTENTS

Cymbeline in Love
or, The Unmade Bed

A Little Dog in Pearls
or, Machine Worker in Summer

The Sentimental Problem of Clara Argento
or, Mella’s Typewriter

The Artist of Her Own Beauty
or, Observatory Time—The Lovers

Such Are the Dreams of the Everyday Housewife
or, Artículos eléctricos para el hogar (Electrical Appliances for the Home)

A World through My Window
or, Early Skyline

Jessie Berlin
or, Phoenix on Her Side

Good Night Kiss
or, Crescent Moon #4

Author’s Note

Select Bibliography

Acknowledgments

Photo Credits

Text Permissions

About Whitney Otto

For Joy Harris, Jan Novotny, and Simone Seydoux

CYMBELINE IN LOVE OR
THE UNMADE BED

PART 1: AMERICA

The Third Fire Lit by Mary Doyle, 1917

The kitchen smelled like burnt wood and water. Cymbeline closed her eyes and imagined that she and Leroy were breaking camp on a cool morning in the Olympics, the carried river water flooding the remains of the breakfast fire before they set out for a day of photography and painting, and sometimes simply lying back in the sweetness of the grass, doing nothing. Their first year of marriage had been marked by these small journeys into the empty beauty that surrounded early-twentieth-century Seattle; Cymbeline and Leroy—a naked husband modeling in nature for his pregnant wife—making good on their promise to each other to not be like everyone else. In fact, that was the very argument he had used to urge her into marriage when he first wrote to her four years ago, in 1913, while he was still in Paris.

Nineteen thirteen was the year Leroy began traveling and painting, falling so in love with his new life in Europe that when a mutual friend put him in touch with Cymbeline—a working Seattle photographer with her own rather well-received studio that allowed her to support herself if she cut all luxury from her life—he fell in love with her as well.

The original purpose of Leroy and Cymbeline’s correspondence was the organization of a small American exhibition of his work, until their letters moved easily from the logistics of the exhibition into something more personal. It was inevitable that the painter and the photographer who saw photography as a fine art would quickly find common ground, each excited by an ongoing paper conversation that seemed so warm, so effortless. All those months of shared ideas and enthusiasms were intoxicating; it was flattering to be told that she understood him so well. She was an artist, he said. He said, You are my kind.

She loved his paintings. He loved her pictures.

Still, she was thrown when he wrote,
Ever since the thrill that your first letter gave me, you have continued to move me. Yes, I confess it, I set out months ago with the deliberate intention of winning your affections because I wanted them, oh, I wanted them so much!!! Underlying all this, however, is that want, that emptiness, that completeness.

She remembered the heat of her studio as she read those words, one hand holding Leroy’s letter and the other a glass of iced tea, which she pressed to her forehead. It was as if Leroy’s confession of emptiness and want had amplified the heat in the room as it touched upon her own hunger. It wasn’t safe, she knew, to feel so much need.

He wrote,
You are the ideal woman for me, and fearing no longer, in all hope, tranquillity, and happiness. I ask you if you will be my friend and companion for life—if you will be my wife—Love and time in Italy!
She must come to him, he said, they would live in Italy and, he added,
Let’s not be like anyone else.

A million images of Italy flipped though her mind: ruins and churches; olive trees, fountains, rolling hills, and the sea. Wading in wildflowers up to her waist. The country in shades of oyster white, smoke, dusty green, brilliant New World gold, blood red, and that blue, blue sea lazing beneath the azure sky. The whimsy of Venetian palaces, and Michelangelo’s slaves straining against the stone; the unrealized dream machines of Leonardo. Leroy wrote,
There are such wondrous lands to explore—

Let’s not be like anyone else.

She weighed his proposal against her studio. She weighed it against her tiny foothold in American art, having recently had her first exhibition even though the patronizing tone of the male critics who said her pictures were “pleasing” cut her a little. She balanced her present against her future; she thought about marriage (something she seldom thought about) and children (something she often thought about). She weighed out her education (the first in her family with a university degree, in chemistry and German).

She weighed out her physical aspect (she was small, with unruly
red curls, metal-framed glasses, a good, if slightly pear-shaped figure), her looks enhanced by her intelligence and curiosity and willingness to accept the complexity in most things. But as to beauty, the best she could claim was a kind of specialized beauty, the sort that someone may feel happy to have stumbled upon. She weighed out her professional possibilities and the knowledge that America had not yet caught up with a woman’s ambition. She weighed out the fact that she and Leroy had yet to meet, face-to-face.

She was twenty-nine years old.

Along with the doused campfire scent, the kitchen carried the aroma of torched cotton and paint—a kind of nervy, toxic smell. The glass windows appeared slightly altered, as if the high temperature had softened them.

The damage to this room was nothing when compared to the room with which it shared a wall: Cymbeline’s darkroom and studio. The wooden floor and bits of debris crackled under her boots, though the place wasn’t completely destroyed; the damage was sweeping yet selective, the overall effect was of the room’s entire contents seeming unsalvageable, until her eyes grew accustomed to its shocking appearance. The urge to slide to the floor in the middle of the mess while surrendering to tears had to be resisted since she knew she would have a hard time getting back up, both figuratively and literally—she was eight months into what had been, and still was, a difficult pregnancy.

All this while Leroy was off painting in Yosemite, Cymbeline no longer able to comfortably accompany him as she had in the first year of their marriage. Even when she was pregnant with Bosco, their first child, now a two-year-old, she could still keep up with Leroy. She could take nude pictures of him as he posed in the forest or near a lake (she was said to have “invented the male nude” in reference to those honeymoon photographs). One of the most successful was of him as Narcissus, seduced by his beautiful reflection. This was during her Pictorial phase, when she believed that photographs could be made to imitate paintings.

Her approach to photography eventually changed, but Leroy stayed the same. The self-involvement that had masqueraded as charm when they were new was now just an accepted fact of their marriage.

When Bosco was a baby (she had gotten pregnant so quickly!), Leroy left on a monthlong trip in the spring, followed by a two-month trip in the summer, “the only time to work in the San Juans,” he insisted. She understood and complied, staying behind to manage Bosco, the house, her photography, and to pen love letters to Leroy.

BOOK: Eight Girls Taking Pictures
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