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Photographing author Octavia Butler by Alice Arnold

Octavia Butler, photography by Alice Arnold

I photographed Octavia Butler in Altadena, California in March 1999. The photo shoot was arranged by an Austrian journalist, who was a friend of mine, for a German language publication. Octavia invited me to her home in Altadena, but told me that she didn't usually let strangers into her house, however, she made an exception for me because she was planning to move up north soon (she moved to Washington State). Her house was a lovely example of the California bungalow style and it exuded a neat and calm atmosphere. The photo shoot took place a short distance from her home, in Eaton Canyon, at the foot of the San Gabriel mountains. She was a very private person and I don't think she enjoyed the photo session, having to pose and be scrutinized by the lens. But she was very gracious and allowed me to shoot several rolls of film. For me, it was a wonderful experience to be able to meet her and create a portrait of her. I hope my photos reflect her life force and leave an etching of her spirit in our memories.

Octavia Butler, photography by Alice Arnold

For reasons unknown to me, the story was never published, so these images remained unpublished until 2021, though I did put one image on my website in the early 2000s. That image was seen by a photo editor at The New Yorker in 2021 and they contacted me to license an image for an article. This is the first time one of the photos from this shoot was published in a major media outlet. So, these images have remained largely unseen up until 2021, which speaks to the shifting tides of interest and popularity in the public consciousness.

Octavia Butler started publishing in the 1970s and by the '80s and '90s she was a well-established writer within the science-fiction genre. But it wasn't until decades later that the power of her ideas and her voice connected with a growing movement for social justice. So now in the second decade of this century, which Octavia herself did not live to see, her writings are animating us through theater, song, images and yes, words.

Octavia Butler, photography by Alice Arnold

Alice Arnold is a documentary media maker and educator. She creates, edits, designs, writes and photographs projects that explore the urban environment and visual culture — from street art to advertising and from sidewalks to electric signs. Her films are in the collections of university libraries throughout the United States and has screened at MoMA and other festivals. She is a NYFA Photography Fellow, a Fulbright Fellow in film and an Adjunct Professor at the City University of New York.


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