Olivia Bee Dazzles Festival of the Photograph

Jun 24, 2016

When photography was new -- more than 150 years ago -- some people thought photographers were magicians.  Today, with the advent of camera phones, almost anyone can be a photographer, but one young woman still understands the magic of taking pictures, and at the age of 14 she turned her obsession with the camera into a wildly successful career.

  In the lobby of Charlottesville’s Paramount Theater, Olivia Bee stands at the head of a long line of admirers -- signing books and posing with fans.  She's petite and perky with a pony tail of brown curls tied above her head and a delicate gold ring piercing the right side of her nose.  The 22-year-old could be a move star or a musician -- fully comfortably with her fame. In fact, she's a photographer and an artist who's been working since childhood.

“For years I sculpted with a bunch of clay," she recalls. "I drew and painted and made music.  I sewed and I worked on a loom, I made miniatures and many doll houses out of shoe boxes.”

Bee told more than a thousand people at the Look3 Festival that her parents were an inspiration.  Her father is a musician, her mother an amateur photographer.  At the age of 11, Olivia Bolles – as she was known in middle school -- became a photographer herself through a happy accident.

“I had always wanted to make movies, so I signed up for video production,"  she explains.  "But I was not given video production.  I was given photography, and I was really, really bad at it.”

But Bee loved it and got better -- documenting much of her life in Portland, Oregon with a camera.  At 12 she was posting pictures online.  By 14 she had a large following on Facebook and Flickr. Family and friends were frequent subjects.

“I think it was probably annoying at first," the young photographer admits, "but it just became an extension of my body.  People didn’t really notice after a while.  I’m pretty good at just being a fly on the wall.”

And nothing was sacred.  She claims to have snapped pictures moments after losing her virginity. 

“I was like, ‘Hey I know we just had sex, but this is important to me.’  That’s part of my story. A photo of people sneaking out of the window in high school, that was part of my story.  Drinking and doing drugs for the first time, that was my story.  Adventuring for the first time on their own – this was all part of my story.” 

And her story is – it appears -- the ideal of many Americans.  At the New City Arts’ gallery where Bee’s photos were shown, we spoke with Rachel Dennis, Sam Krisch and Michelle Sons.

“It’s the kind of childhood or adolescence you wish you had,” said video producer Rachel Dennis as she studied a photo of Bee and her boyfriend kissing underwater.

“I really like how loose the work is, how dreamy it is," said professional photographer Sam Krisch of Roanoke.  "It really feels like it is a group of high school kids keeping a scrap book, but in a creative way.”

“I love the romance of it," added Michelle Sons, also a professional shutter bug. "I’ve got a 15-year-old daughter, so I can kind of relate to it on that level.”

Sons and Krisch did not criticize Bee’s technical imperfections – blurred images, subjects out of focus, lighting not quite right.

“I use blur, movement in my own work to try and convey certain feelings," says Sons.  "I don’t see it as a negative in any way in her work.” 

“I think technical perfection is overrated," adds Krisch. "As a matter of fact, when I teach my iPhone class, what people start to learn is we can take our photographs and ruin them like grandma used to, so we actually like it not to be technically proficient but to be expressive.”

Confirming that point, 19-year-old Ariel Smith contemplates a picture of wood frame house at dusk – a golden light emanating from inside.  The focus is soft, and Smith says that’s how it should be.

“If it was in focus it would just be a picture of a house. This is a picture of whatever you want it to be.”

The intense colors she manipulates on her computer, the soft focus and grainy texture also caught the eye of the shoe company Converse, and its advertising agency reached out to 14-year-old Olivia – inviting her to a photo shoot.  She assumed it was some kind of joke, and ignored the e-mail. Another message arrived.  She deleted it.  Then came an e-mail with a Converse address.

"They were like, ‘What’s the deal?'" Bee remembers.  "'We’ve been sending you a bunch of e-mails. We’d love to shoot with you.  Like we’re going to be in Portland these dates. We’re shooting with this other photographer.  Would you like to come and shoot a day too?  And I was like, ‘Oh my God,’ so I showed my parents.  They were like, ‘Olivia, why haven’t you been responding to this.  This is a real thing.”

So she accepted the offer.

“I went on set, shot, I got paid, and I realized  I could do that.  I didn’t really have a problem directing the models.  I knew what I wanted.  I could have an idea in my head and execute it.”

She got an agent and soon was shooting for Nike and Adidas, for the French fashion house Hermes and the New York Times magazine.  In 2010 she spoke to a design conference, explaining her goals, which appealed mightily to Madison Avenue.

“I’m always snapping – trying to freeze that perfect laughter, that 16-year-old feeling of I don’t give a s---, the constant lingering of adolescent loneliness and the beauty in this age.  It’s all in those negatives in the produce box on my bookshelf. It’s 75% of my hard drive and it’s my entire life.”

And then, showing her charming youthful side, she whipped out her camera.

“I want to close with taking in this memory," she told the crowd. "I want to take a picture of all you guys.  Okay, can everybody stand up?"

The audience complied.

"And now," said Bee, "Can you turn to your neighbor and give them a good old hug?"  

People laughed aloud as they followed her instructions.

" Sweet!" said Bee, as she snapped one picture after the next. "Thank you everybody!”

Today, Bee has apartments in New York and L.A.  She travels the world, working almost every day and appears at professional events like the Look3 Festival where executive director Mary Virginia Swanson hailed her as a leader of photography’s next generation.

“They’re experimenting with phones of course, plastic cameras, hand-made cameras, all the way through to the historical processes," Swanson explains. "My generation tended to pick a brand and stick with it. I was a Canon user.  I stayed with it.  Her generation has all the tools at their fingertips, and then – of course – Photoshop.  So they can really take their vision and shape it in many, many different ways.”

Bee claims to have her choice of clients – rejecting jobs that hold no appeal.

“I could make tons of money doing pharmaceuticals, but I do not want to do that.  I would never photograph Donald Trump. I say no a lot.  The things that don’t move me forward or aren’t worth my time, I don’t do.”

But, in general, she doesn’t have qualms about doing corporate work.

“I’m kind of a hippie, but I’m not against money from corporations if a brand has cool ideas and is doing cool things.  Like Converse – they do amazing things for young artists, and they’re just all around a really sick brand that’s really about this lifestyle that people want to be a part of, and it’s totally cool.”

She’s just launched a book of photographs called Kids In Love, has directed some music videos, is thinking about a transition to movies, and looks forward to the future.  Ironically, her youth has made her successful, but it may also have held her back.

“It’s complicated," Bee explains. " People are always telling me how young I am, but then I have to be a goddamn adult in my job – like I have to be so strong about what I need to accomplish, and I have to get it done, and I’m in a leadership role, so everything is on me, and to have that in combination – all that pressure, but then people being like, ‘Well you’re so young -- oh, so cute!’ That’s such a push and pull for me.  People are always like, ‘What’s Olivia going to do when she’s 30?’ I’m going to be making way better stuff than I am now.”

And with that, she was off to the airport – flying from Washington to LA overnight to begin work on her next assignment in the morning.