Eight Girls Taking Pictures by Whitney Otto

Life lived. And reimagined through a woman's camera lens.

Synopsis of Eight Girls Taking Pictures by Whitney OttoA deeply affecting meditation on the lives of women artists, Whitney Otto's vivid novel explores the ambitions, passions, conflicts and desires of eight female photographers throughout the twentieth century. This spectacular cast of spirited, larger-than-life women offers wide-ranging insight about the times in which they lived. From San Francisco to New York, London, Berlin, Buenos Aires, and Rome, Otto spins a magical, romantic tale that creates a compelling portrait of the history of feminism and of photography.

While their circumstances may differ, the tensions these women experience—from wanting a private life or a public life; passion or security; art or domesticity; children or creative freedom—are universal. Otto seamlessly weaves together eight breathtaking vignettes to form a moving and emotionally satisfying novel.

My two cents 

The book in one sentence: Live life large whether in front or behind the lens.

Amazing! This makes it as another of my favourite reads for the year. With the same appeal as Otto's How to Make an American Quilt, this is altogether bold, romantic, tender and outspoken. I loved everything about it and I could relate on so many levels, as a woman, and as someone who has always been fascinated with photography and art in general.

The novel is broken up into eight sections, each featuring a famous female photographer and her story. The obvious common thread -- photography -- is just one among the many threads that hold the individual stories together. Spanning decades (early 1990s to the present), across several continents, during various historical moments -- these themes are the stuff of our lives. I just breathed it all in! I am betting that women readers will be able to relate to one (or more) of the eight characters in some way.

Women photographers are simply ordinary women who face the issues all women do: the men (or women) who we love, fulfilling the roles expected of women (or breaking out of them), feeling comfortable in one's sexuality, children (or none at all), of wanting to carve out one's one path personally and career-wise. What makes a woman happy? What makes you happy?

What sets these eight women apart is their vision (and tempestuousness) to continue with their craft -- and do so with great courage and passion -- despite (or inspite) of the many hurdles. They all managed to make their mark in photography in rather profound ways.

Opening photo for first photographer,
Cymbeline Kelly (US)
Each vignette opens with a photograph which figures in the story somehow (and which I tended to flip back and forth to try and see the image through that particular photographer's eyes).

The first photographer's story opens with the photo of an unmade bed with some hairpins. Note that all these photos are apparently taken by real women photographers, and then the characters' lives are reimagined by the author based on that photo. How creative and what a wonderful way to draw readers in! Of course I want to find out who Cymbeline is, who this "woman in love" is! Of course I want to know the story behind that unmade bed. Like we always say, a picture is worth a thousand words ... in this case, the words follow.

Each has made their own distinctive mark in the world of photography -- with some extremely fascinating points woven into the narratives. There are references to photography styles and influences, lenses and cameras and details that will satisfy the photography buff. And since this draws from the lives of women photographers, there is a list at the end of the book you can check out.

The stories are interspersed and coming from a small art niche, the paths of some of these women either cross physically or professionally. This makes for the reappearance or reference to the eight main characters throughout the book (and the first time it happened, I was a little surprised!)

Photo for photographer Amadora Allesbury (UK)
What I liked: 

  • The combination of story and photography history lesson. 
  • The photos at the beginning of each section.
  • The realistic depiction that women are complicated creatures. Add that to a hard-headed artist wanting to make their mark in the artwork, and you've in for fireworks. 

What I didn't like:

  • The characters seem to be made from the same stuff - they're all very outspoken, very comfortable in their sexuality, and yet ... their relationships are such messes! I attribute that to the fact that they are women artists. And that photography was a male-dominated industry. Or is this just a stereotype? I'm a little on the fence about this because I loved this book!


Verdict: A beautifully written set of vignettes about the complexity of women and their photography. Highly recommended for Otto fans and photography buffs.

Random quotes:

Among the things she said: "Women seem to possess all the natural gifts essential to a good portraitist ... such as personality, patience and intuition. The sitter ought to be the predominating factor in a  successful portrait. Men portraitist are apt to forget this; they are inclined to lose the sitter in a maze of technique luxuriating in the cleverness and beauty of their own medium." - p. 66 (ARC, page may change)

It was hard not to feel resentment that men weren't forced into these choices. Some days she felt that she would spend all her time trying to forget her life before children because she loved them too much to be reminded of the heat of Rome in the summer and a beautiful girl who turned heads as she walked down an Italian strada. - p 253 (ARC, page may change)

Later, Jenny would say she seldom knew what she would take a picture of when she picked up a camera, that she only knew once she peered through the viewfinder, as if the photograph had finally found her. - p. 309 (ARC, page may change)

Read more at Whitney Otto's Official Website.

I received an ARC on Goodreads First Reads.


  1. This is "the best" book review, ever!! Sounds like you made a huge connection with the book. I think my daughters would like this one. Very professional post, thank you!

    1. "professional?" heehee. :) i'd love to hear what your daughters think about this!


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