How Olivia Bee spent her teenage years capturing the ephemeral spirit of youth

How Olivia Bee spent her teenage years capturing the ephemeral spirit of youth

Being young, alive, and in love — For 22-year-old photographer Olivia Bee, a camera is an extension of herself - whether she's shooting intimate childhood moments or high end professional campaigns. We caught up with her in New York City on one of her rare days off.

The first time I looked through 22-year-old photographer Olivia Bee’s new book, Kids in Love, I shed a tear. More than one, actually. Not because it’s sad or because I’m a middle aged sap, but because it’s beautiful, and resonates with the pure gut feeling of being young and in love.

The spirit of youth is ephemeral, it’s an idea that marketing companies pay fortunes attempting to capture for clients and artists burn out trying to express, often without success. As we get older, the pure hormonally-infused bliss of being a teenager fades into the responsible rationality of adulthood.

Olivia Bee

“Everything’s fucking magical when you’re 17”, Olivia told me when we met in New York. She’d know, having just been there and meticulously documented those years herself. After starting out shooting and developing her own film at 11 years old, her use of Flickr got her noticed and soon she was shooting campaigns for companies like Converse, Adidas, Fiat, Levis and Nike and gracing the cover of the New York Times Magazine.

After graduating high school, she left her home in Portland, Oregon for New York City, rapidly making even more of a name for herself as both a lifestyle photographer and artist. Now, with the release of Kids in Love, she’s letting go of the past, and striding with a well-earned confidence into adulthood.

Often hazy and soaked with rich colour and deep blacks, her dream-like depictions look as through they’re ripped straight from your own teenage fantasies, dioramas of daydreams resonating with raw emotion, as Olivia and her subjects experience everything from drugs to love to life. Strikingly intimate even in an era of shameless oversharing, her vulnerability exudes youthful confidence and drags you squarely into the scene

Huck: Has it been hard to transition from so-called child prodigy to adult artist?

Olivia: The transition from being a (laughs) child prodigy to an adult who is also good has been natural, but with a lot of bumps. On just a logistical standpoint, it’s easier now when I go on set and I’m not 16. I’m being taken a little more seriously. People know my name more now, and it’s just not like, “why is the PA’s daughter using the camera?” That used to happen to me. I mean, it still happens to me. I’ll walk on set and they’ll be like “what’re you, 12?” I’m like, “excuse me, I’m the voice of a generation, please!” (laughs)

OliviaBee4 Have you run into issues with older, established photographers because of your age?

Yeah, totally. I’ve had times where older photographers, mostly men, are super jelly (jealous) and take it out in a way that isn’t cool. It must be threatening as someone who thinks they’re set for life and then here’s this kid who looks like she’s way younger than she is who holds a camera kind of right and kind of knows how to use it and who makes really great pictures.

So I get that. I run into that shit all the time. There have been a couple bumps recently, but it used to happen a lot more and I have a lot of support and validation from older photographers. I’m about to do a show with Doug DuBois, which is fucking sick. I’m on the same roster as Joel Meyerowitz and Gregory Crewdson right now, and I met Gregory and he was so excited about me doing well as a young person. Ryan McGinley is also a super sweetheart. I’d say for the most part I’ve been well supported, but of course there are people who are jealous and don’t know how to deal with their feelings, usually older males.

OliviaBee5Does being older and working professionally more affect the way your work?

I shoot commissioned a lot for my day job, and a lot of the time I set up stuff that’s meant to look documentary style. I shoot lifestyle, ‘cause I know how to do it. I want to tell more narrative stories. I used to shoot all the time, and then find the story later. Like, I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing when I was shooting all these pictures that are now a book. I just knew I had to do it. And still sometimes when I make my work I don’t know what it’s about until I step back. I think that’s part of being a photographer, the story comes from the pictures rather than informing the pictures.

isvbSo much of your work so far has been documenting new experiences. As you get older and new experiences become fewer and farther between, do you think it will be harder for you to find inspiration?

I’ve thought about that. I don’t photograph my life as much as I did when I was 17, ‘cause everything’s fucking magical when you’re 17. You do drugs for the first time, and it’s like the best thing you’ve ever done in your life. You’re in a magical place for the first time. You have sex, and it’s, like, mind blowing, even though it’s terrible. It’s just a different state of mind. When I make pictures I document different parts of myself. I’m very interested in documenting my relationships and the boys I sleep with and the boys I’m in love with. I’m more honed in on romance and self identity rather than, like, (sings) kids having fun in a field!

OliviaBee1I also stage shoots, but make it feel natural. Maybe they are a slice of life, but it’s in a fantastical setting… I never like my pictures to feel like photoshoots even if it’s a big ridiculous situation. I don’t want it to feel like it’s made for a picture, I want it to feel like a postcard from a place or a snapshot from this magical time. I go on road trips and I take more photos then, that’s kind of when I put my “having fun as a kid” energy into it.

OliviaBee9With all the documenting of your relationships, does it ever have an impact on them? Have you scared anyone off with the camera and your openness to sharing those intimate moments?

Um, it takes a special one to deal with me (laughs). I don’t think I’ve ever scared someone off, but I’ve had to break things off before. I dated someone for a long time who hated being photographed, and that was really hard for me. That really, really hurt my soul. And we were so in love… It always comes down to me putting my work first in front of anyone else. Not my commissioned jobs, but me making content. Making stuff and expressing my ideas always comes first.

OliviaBee7One of the things that has really impressed me about your work is that it’s not “Internetty.” So many people’s photos these days looks as though they were made with Instagram in mind, and you don’t have that vibe at all. What do you think of the role social media plays in photography these days?

Obviously as a promotional tool its amazing, but I don’t want my images to just exist for Instagram. Sometimes I think about that, “I need to have three photos to post so it doesn’t mess with my symmetry.” I hate it, because this is not its final resting place, but just where I’m posting it right now. My photos belong in books and as prints, that’s how I want to show them. But part of social media for me is putting the images out in the world so they can have a life of their own. I made the work really close to me, and I’ve given it away. That’s a part of my process. Not thinking about what other people are saying about it, but that it exists detached from my own experiences helps me move on and and realise what it means.

OliviaBee10You’re just barely in your twenties and already established as a force in photography, what comes next? 

I definitely want to be directing more. I want to be making short films and music videos, and that’s all in the process. I’ve been doing a lot of writing. I write a fuck-ton of poetry that no one really knows about, I think the next book I do I’d like to be a combination of pictures and poetry, because sometimes they go together. I used to use pictures as my diary, but now I think I use words more. What else… There’s a lot of things I want to do. I want to design clothes; I would like to make more. I love making music, I write country songs! I want to release books. I would like to be a photo editor at a publication someday. I want to paint more. Those are my things. I want to buy a house in LA too.

OliviaBee12Your getting into photography at 11 is well documented, but why do you think it struck you the way it did? Where did this creativity and drive come from? 

Honestly, I think it’s something you’re born with. My parents were incredibly encouraging. I was always making shit. I was drawing before I could talk – I guess most kids are, whatever, I’m not special (laughs). I was drawing like crazy, I was making paintings. I was making music as a kid. My dad is very musical, my mother is very crafty, they’re both big readers, they’re very smart.

OliviaBee6I read a lot as a kid, was definitely introduced to a lot of storytelling, watched a lot of movies, also just went very magical places and had an extreme appreciation for nature. We went on a lot of road trips, lived in a hippie bus sometimes. We went camping a lot. I had chickens, I had rabbits. There was a log cabin in my backyard that my grandfather built me. I lived a fantasy as a child, for sure. So that’s a huge part of what I find interesting, and how I have an appreciation for this honest magic.

It’s interesting that you’re so self-assured, but don’t come across as too cocky. 

Because it’s authentic. I haven’t always been comfortable with my talent or my success, because it really isolated me when I was in high school. I’ve gone to a lot of therapy, and it’s something that I’ve come to terms with. People can come off as cocky… Like me saying I’m talented does sound cocky, but it’s true. I’m not saying I’m the best photographer in the world, but I have talent and I know how to use it. I can always get better and learn how to use it better, and there are also a lot of other talented people in the world and a lot of people who have ambition. But I’m one of those people.

For more on Olivia, check out her website here, and get your copy of Kids in Love here

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