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They're "real, obsessive emotions put in a pop context," Olivia Bee says of her photographs. Since her Flickr account was first discovered by Converse when she was only 14 years old, which led to Bee shooting her first commissioned campaign for the brand at 15, the 21-year-old Brooklyn-based photographer has found praise from fashion brands, art critics and Instagram teens alike for her dreamlike images that explore themes of nature, youthful romance and coming of age. Her photos are the subject of a new book -- her first -- called Kids in Love, which is out now via Aperture. Composed of two chapters, "Enveloped in a Dream" and the titular "Kids in Love," the collection offers an intimate look at both the physical world around Bee's native Portland, Oregon and the fantasy world inside her head. At the end of the book is a conversation with Rookie editor and actress Tavi Gevinson called "Nostalgic for Last Tuesday," which rounds out the collection of photos by providing context for Bee's self-proclaimed "shrouded imagery."
Aside from the book, Bee's creative projects include directing her first short film later this year and shooting for clients like Apple, Hermès Paris, REDValentino and The New York Times Magazine. We spoke to the photographer about storytelling, not needing validation from the old guard and the type of "romantic freedom" that lines the pages of her Kids in Love.
You describe yourself as a "storyteller" -- how does the storytelling that you do differ between photography and film?
A photograph can be [misleading] but it can also be very honest in that moment. I think when you take one moment out of 36 frames that I took and that's part of a whole set-up we did, it's giving you a summary in one frame, which is just one moment. Maybe that's not how it actually happened, maybe that's not a very good synopsis of it at all, but it's the frame you have. Telling a narrative story is really difficult. [In terms of filmmaking], I came from just shooting pictures and figuring out the story later; your eye moves faster than your brain when you're a very visual person. And so now I'm kind of trying to reverse that, because you can't do that in film. You can't be like, "Oh, haha, I wonder what will happen." You can't make a movie that way. It's a waste of everyone's time, it's not going to be good, it's not going to make any sense so there's not going to be any structure. I'm trying to train my brain to think of a story and then shoot it in that way, which I think will really help my films because then I have everything that I need that scene or that image to tell in one frame. And if you can do that in film, you can push every idea to the fullest idea that it can be -- that's what makes something really powerful. Less is always more. "Storyteller" is also a loaded term because I'm just processing life, that's what an artist does. They take life and the things that they experience and process it in a way they understand.
How did you select the name for your book?
It's snappy, it's exactly what I want it to say, it applies to both chapters. "Enveloped in a Dream" isn't as catchy; "Kids in Love" just makes sense. It's to the point. I remember when I wanted to name my show with agnès b. ["Kids in Love"] they were like, "Ah, but I don't know, it's too Patti Smith, it's too Ryan McGinley." And I was like, "Those are two people who have definitely influenced me, and I think this is my own thing. I think 'Kids in Love' is great." And it's not like teenagers -- that's stupid. These are kids. I'm still a kid, I feel like a kid. Kid is just a very good word to describe someone who's excited about life and who's just experiencing life with young eyes, which I think you should always do. You should always go through life not with the experience of a child, but with the eyes of a child. And "Children in Love" is kind of creepy. So "Kids in Love" it was.
Olivia Bee, Closer, 2010, from Olivia Bee: Kids in Love (Aperture, 2016)
© Olivia Bolles
Olivia Bee, Running Away Lightly, Magic Hour, 2012, from Olivia Bee: Kids in Love (Aperture, 2016)
© Olivia Bolles
Take me through the process of curating this book.
I always knew what photos were my favorites, and I had an idea in my head about which images went together. I definitely knew that my early work from like 2008 or 2009 was this separate thing with my best friend, and I noticed when I was starting to take pictures differently. Like, "Oh, I'm going out into the world and making photos about moments that are happening." I was appreciating the world that was going on around me rather than creating the world inside my head. So then I combined them. And that's what I like to do, is to combine those two things.
In my first meeting with Aperture, it was only "Kids in Love" then -- it was not "Enveloped in a Dream." I wanted to do a separate book for that, which now I'm just really glad it's in the same book. They were like, "We really love this, but what about some of your other early work?" And I was like, "Ah, I don't know, I really want it to just be this." Then I started thinking about it and I was like, "Actually that's a really, really good idea." They wanted to intermix it and I was like, "No, it's not the same project at all, it needs to be separate projects." And then we talked about different chapters, and it was like, "Okay, that makes more sense."
The book includes a conversation with Tavi Gevinson. How did that come about?
Tavi has been a supporter of my work for a really long time. She's a good friend -- we have the same train of thought a lot of the time and she's extremely intelligent. I was talking to Aperture and I was like, "Well, maybe I should have someone older write the intro, someone to really be like, 'Yeah, this is good.'" But then I was like, "You know what? I don't think we really need that, I think it'd be better if it was Tavi and if it was someone from my generation who understands this work and who understands the place it came from and the time it came from." I thought that would be a perfect match. They really loved that idea. And also, Aperture pointed out that it wasn't like us needing approval from this other generation, we can stand on our own and we're very powerful.
How do you hope to mature as an artist?
I think I'd just like to tell more complex stories and allow myself to experience relationships and friendships and things that aren't just work -- I mean, I work a lot -- to make sure my work is informed with things that aren't just being 16, because I don't want my work to feel childish forever. I think it has grown up a lot in the last few years, but I want to be creating like a child, not with the subject matter of a child. I think that's kind of difficult because I was marketed -- especially in commercial photography -- as a young person who could speak to young people. But that's not very sustainable, because I'm 21 now but what's going to happen when I'm 30?
"Kids in Love" chronicles your life from ages 14 to 20. Is this book in some way closure for you?
Totally. Of course, I'm still a kid, but I think my pictures now might not be about the same kind of romantic freedom as they used to be, because everything's new when you're 16, 17 -- like, "Oh, my god, we're walking on the train tracks in Paris and it's 7 a.m. and we're all on drugs." But it's like, I don't want to do that again, I don't need to do that again. Or like, "All these feelings of sex are so new." It's stuff I don't really need to revisit; I did it as hard as I possibly could then. I'm going to keep living a free [life] but there are a lot of things in that book I don't need to do again.
Splash photo: Olivia Bee, Pre-Kiss, 2010, from Olivia Bee: Kids in Love (Aperture, 2016)
© Olivia Bolles