#WHM Olivia Bee
We’ll be tapping our incredible archives in support of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day and posting interviews from our Women issue throughout the month of March.
Olivia Bee an honest magic
Interview by Paula Rey
What was it like growing up in Oregon, which is rather far from major work-hubs such as LA and NY?
Oregon was magical and incredibly beautiful. You have a range of nature in Oregon – you have deserts, forests, rivers, lakes and even the ocean. A huge part of my childhood was going camping and being with my family in nature, which is so apparent in my work. I honestly didn’t even want to go to New York. Since I started working really young – at 15 – I didn’t want to move, so, I chose to stay in Oregon. A lot of people shoot in Oregon. There’s definitely a big artistic community there, but it’s a weird community. There is some part of Portland that really likes to stay comfortable, and doesn’t like it if you are successful. People make you feel bad for wanting to do big things. Life there is so much fun. It’s just so easy to drink with your friends, and sit on a porch and play music, which is what a lot of people want to do. But if I did that all the time, I’d get depressed. It’s too comfortable there and that’s the problem, but this is going to change because a lot of people are moving there now.
What was the first camera you ever owned and the last camera you shot with?
The first camera that I ever owned was a really shitty digital camcorder. Right now, I shoot a lot with a Contax T2 and G2, and a couple medium format cameras, like the Makina 67. I hate putting that in interviews. They’re so hard to get now because everyone is talking about them, and mine just broke.
As a photographer, what kind of moments hold magic for you?
I think that would be a moment that is mysterious and sensual, but also tells a story. Something that has a narrative, but doesn’t entirely give out the whole narrative is also magical. I am trying to make my work more narrative, and sometimes I feel I am learning everything backwards. I learned what my aesthetic was super early on and I had figured out what sorts of things I like photographing, but I wasn’t really aware of the stories until later. That’s a big transition now, where I am writing videos. So, now I’m like, “Oh, I have to plan all that out or else it’s not going to work.” So, that’s been like a big learning curve. Going back to your question, I like moments that are honest. It is like an honest magic and a magical kind of honesty that I look for.
When did you develop this feeling of honest magic and magical honesty?
I think it was something I started tapping into when I was 14. If you look at the project, Enveloped in a Dream – the first photos I was making – it’s about me and my best friend, and the world that we existed within, within us. I didn’t really know what I was making when I was 14. I mean, I was making choices, but they were totally subconscious. I really like things that glow and things that have magic inside them, that you can see from the outside, but I didn’t really put that together. I like how this aesthetic feels to me. Figuring out what it actually meant on an intellectual level came later.
You talk a lot about the authenticity and love that go into your photos. What do you think is the most authentic or honest photo you’ve taken?
Go to my project Kids in Love. It’s got a photograph of my little brother. That was taken after he jumped off a train, which he hopped on to when he was 13. He was just so fucked up and I was the only one he told what happened. He told my parents that he got into a bike accident, but I knew. And at that time, we were visiting my grandpa who was dying in Seattle. So, that’s my little brother at that age. I love him so much. Also, if you go to my Flickr profile, you’ll see a recent one of my ex-boyfriend. That’s right before we broke up and there is, like, a lot of heartbreak and longing, but also sensuality that hangs in that photograph. I’ve had distance from this photo so, at first, I thought to myself, “Maybe it’s just because you are seeing it that way.” But I really do think it feels heartbreaking in some slight sense, but also has a lot of love. And that’s exactly what was going on with us. He is wasted in that picture, and I was wasted when I took the picture. It was after a hard night, but we found this moment where we were still in love with each other. But there was something very wrong and that’s exactly how we were. He hates me now.
Nowadays, everyone is a photographer. How do you feel being part of the first generation of photographers to grow up and become an artist with the notion that everyone is curating and documenting their own life?
I think part of it is really amazing that there is so much content that is being created, so much weird shit because everybody is making stuff all the time. The thing is, if I was a photographer 20 years ago, when it wasn’t this normal for people to photograph everything, I wouldn’t be able to do what I am doing. Like, I wouldn’t be able to have this as my job. Instagram has helped me actually figure out what I want to take photos of. Posting on the internet is part of my process, not necessarily because I am taking into account all my Instagram comments or like what people are saying on Flickr, or how many views, but because it’s out in the world and I can take a step back from it. I am about to release my first book in spring and I don’t think I would’ve made it without posting photos on the Internet. I needed to let it go in order to put the pieces together.
People sometimes look at your age more than your work, but the truth is that being so young you’ve created some major work. So, tell me, how do you look back on the photos you took a few years ago?
I mean, I guess a part of me is like, ‘How did you make good pictures when you were 14?’ It’s still hard for me to wrap my head around the idea. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I felt this thing, like it was my subconscious that took over and made me take all these pictures. That’s what it feels like. I was forced to be an adult so young. The part of me that became a photographer, that made photographs for money, for brands, had to grow up so young. I had to be like 30 when I was 14. But then this part of me that was making photographs for myself, it came with some kind of maturity, but I was still just being a stupid fucking kid. I never wanted to sacrifice my youth and make work about youth. Creating work that is about youth should come with being young. Like, it’s so obvious when an old person makes work about young people. It’s not the same. So, it’s really important that I am on the same level as all the people I photograph.
You used to do very DIY photoshoots. How did you find the transition to big sets and teams that work on a single shoot?
It kind of came naturally. The biggest problem I had was when I directing a commercial, and I was like, “I am not going to have a camera in my hands. I am just going to be telling people what to do. That’s such a problem.” And my high school boyfriend was like, “You have to view those people as your hands, just that they are more equipped hands.” And that really got me thinking, “OK. It is still my vision.” You can’t control everything, though I still try sometimes. Like, this project on my website, Viva Las Vegas; I styled the whole thing – I produced it, casted it, modeled in it, did the make up, I am not good at hair but I can do the hair, I did location scouting, I was the driver, and I did everything. I like getting super involved. This was a period when I didn’t have any jobs for like a couple of months, and I had this money, and I was like, “I need to make something great right now.” I had had the story in my head for like a while and I’d been really interested in Vegas. So, I went to Vegas last October and kind of got obsessed with the fiction of it and I started this train of thought about fiction, and people living in a fantasy, and love gone bad, and feeling like you love someone so much but you are so jealous of them that you want to kill them, and all the stuff that can be applied to narrative. So I was like, “OK. I need to put those feelings into a cliché landscape that is really poppy, American and weird.” So I did this.
Where do you feel the stretch of growing pains in your work? And how are you trying to evolve with it?
I am definitely trying to be like a 21-year-old woman, working as an adult. And I am constantly treated like a kid and an adult at the same time, on and off. I also look very young so, at the airport they are always like, “Are you traveling with your parents?” And I am like, “Agh! I am going to go shoot a fucking international shoe campaign.” But then being treated like an adult has its issues; there is so much pressure on me and it’s hard to deal with boys and relationships while I’m so busy. There is a lot of pressure on me. Especially when I was 16; since there are no laws concerning a 16-year-old photographer shooting for Nike, we kind of had to make them up. And there aren’t a lot of people to relate to, which is something I am still struggling with. I don’t relate to a lot of things that my peers are doing, so I am trying to like hangout with more people who understand what I am doing, but there is still some disconnect. I am stuck in this weird middle-phase right now. I am going to therapy a lot. It’s OK. I am growing up. I’ll be fine.
What are your fears or worries regarding your work for the next few years?
No one wants to make the same work all the time. I’ve been photographing my life since I was 14. But now my life is like…I mean, living in New York or in LA is a lot different than living in Oregon. I am not 17 anymore. Magical moments don’t happen all the time, where, like, we are on a bunch of drugs and in a beautiful place. I have to make that happen and if so, it feels like I am repeating things. So, it’s like a lot of planning and just being more strategic about things, and reaching for clients that I want. I am definitely thinking more about where I want my work to exist. I’m being smart about it, and there is so much I want to do. I could’ve had the opportunity to be an It Girl, but I wasn’t really interested. If I had Instagrammed the parties I’m at all the time, and really played out this persona, I could’ve done more. But I don’t think it would’ve being integral to what I believe in or to what my work is. When you’re a successful, young, female photographer, everyone just wants to pin you as a young, successful, female photographer and not even look at your work. I want people to be interested in what I’m making, the stories I’m telling, and my work.
Watching your videos on Youtube, it’s very evident you have quite a good ear for music. Do you still choose the music for the videos you shoot now, for example, in your Hermes campaign?
That’s my friend’s music. Her name is Krista Michaela. She is amazing, and we understand each other on, like, a celestial level. Writing videos is hard because you have to go backwards, and as stupid as it sounds, it was really hard for me to figure out the beginning, middle, and end. I have a video coming out actually, with this director, Matt Lambert. He’s amazing, dieLamb is his thing. He does stuff on relationships, gay and lesbian couples, and just fucking the gender binary.
What was it like planning the vision for a brand as classic as Anais Anais?
They wanted me to do the packaging for everything. Originally, I didn’t know how, but now that is one of the things that I do: re-invent the icons. I’d really like to get more opportunities to do that. I’ve done Roger Vivier, Hermes, and Anais Anais, and many more. I’m about to do a really awesome icon next week, which I can’t tell about you right now, but that is going to blow people’s minds. I am so excited. I love fucking with that stuff, re-bumping it, and making it new, but, like, still being true to the icon.
How do you keep shoot ideas and inspirations organized? What is a normal day in your life?
Oh my God, it’s never normal. In the last two months I’ve been to Sweden, Finland, Lebanon, Canada, China, Korea, Japan, Thailand, LA, Texas, Oregon, Utah, and New York. Nothing is normal. My head is really out of place. I really need some kind of stability and something to hang on to. I’m getting two apartments so I can figure this out. I really need my negatives all in one place again because right now some are in Oregon, some are here in my storage unit, and some are in my sublet in LA.
What do you see yourself doing in the next few years?
I would love make a feature in the next 5-10 years. I need to take some time off and just write it. But things are going crazy right now. I’ve been doing all this work in Asia and I’ve got a crazy month coming up, but it’s going to happen. I just have to be like, “No, agents, please don’t keep me busy right now. I just need to do me for a second.” Also, I would like to get a dog at some point.