Otto (A Collection of Beauties at the Height of Their Popularity, 2002, etc.) combines a paean to the art form with an argument for women’s rights in these interlocking stories of eight fictional woman photographers, clearly inspired by actual photographers, over the course of the 20th century.
While studying photochemistry in 1909 Dresden, Cymbeline discovers a soul mate in her middle-aged professor. The handful of photographs that record their brief, doomed affair are lost when a maid sets fire to Cymbeline’s San Francisco studio in 1917. Married to someone else by then and expected to put her domestic responsibilities first, Cymbeline abandons her work in portraiture but finds an outlet in photographing her garden. Slightly younger British photographer Amadora’s commitment to the art form is initially more a matter of happenstance and suffragette dabbling than passion. But when her husband returns damaged from World War I, Amadora uses color photography to create a world for him. Italian-born Clara, who lives in San Francisco’s artistic circles before moving to Mexico in the 1920s, is undone by her intertwining passions for art, men and politics. In contrast, wealthy N.Y. socialite Ellen, raised to separate love from sex, avoids intimacy in life or photography until she becomes a photojournalist in World War II. After escaping 1930s Germany, Jewish photographer and lesbian/bohemian Charlotte marries for security and moves to Argentina, but her true love remains another woman. The contradictory pull between romantic love and family becomes more complicated when her career takes off. Miri feels trapped in post-WWII domesticity until she starts photographing Manhattan from her apartment window, and the tension of domestic love energizes her creativity. Cymbeline has already emerged as the novel’s uniting presence by the time she visits Miri’s exhibit. 1970s radical feminist Jessie interviews Cymbeline, picking up some hard-won advice. Coming full circle in 1980 is domestic free-spirit Jenny, whose photography of her children is labeled pornographic.
Although overly schematic, Otto makes these eight women and the differing lenses through which they view the 20th century hard to forget.