Alfred Stieglitz recounted a time in his career when “artists who saw my early photographs began to tell me that they envied me; that they felt my photographs were superior to their paintings but that, unfortunately, photography was not an art.” Stieglitz strove from that point to get photography recognized as a respected art form.
Merging the concept of photography as art with the topic of feminism over the past century, Whitney Otto (“How to Make an American Quilt”) offers fictional portraits of eight women photographers who struggle not only for the recognition of photography’s artistic worth but also for the recognition of women engaged in this emerging field.
While the women in Otto’s book are fictional, the characters are based on actual photographers whose lives and work have influenced the author profoundly.
Otto is not a photographer, but she finds meaning for her literary expression in the life stories of certain women who made photography their metier. The author identifies the women who inspired the fictionalized characters and includes a bibliography so interested readers can investigate the real stories of these women’s lives.
The chapters flow chronologically from 1917 to the late 1980s; each chapter is a self-contained story about a particular photographer. The time period of each character’s story reflects the mechanics of photography, the opportunities available for women in this field and the prevalent social thought.
Unfortunately, the author relies on contrived action and needlessly convoluted story lines to make characters complicated and thereby appear to be interesting.
The stories incorporate lovers, rivals, murder, arrest, deportation and frequent relocation around the world. It is sufficiently sensational to read about one character’s survival of the World War II nightly London bombings, but when she manages to take a bath in Hitler’s tub, it unnecessarily strains credibility, even for a work of fiction.
Main characters are so similar that they are difficult to differentiate and even more difficult to care about as they constantly take on new friends and lovers with the turn of each page. It is a challenge to remain fully engaged in the story line with a revolving door of love interests, numerous implausible plot twists and frequent newly revealed personality quirks.
When a character laments the “conflict between motherhood and the constant push to create,” Otto exposes the friction between a woman’s domestic responsibilities and the pursuit of art.
“There was the art-mother problem in that children and art asked for the same things: your undivided attention. Art required solitude, a disengaged mind, free to sort through the inconsequential and the profound, sifting through the mess in the mind until it found what it sought.”
Otto refers to photography as an “almost perfect intersection of machine, chemicals, and art.” I agree, but, regrettably, her novel on the subject lacks focus.
While the individual characters blurred and failed to ignite my interest, the topic of the women’s personal conflicts between family responsibilities and the call of art is intriguing. I finished the book wanting to explore further the history and process of photography as well as the nonfiction sources on women photographers.
This awakened curiosity and new respect for all mothers who balance family and art would please Otto, who has been so inspired by these real-life role models.