Olivia Bee is a photographer and director from Portland, Oregon who is based in Brooklyn, New York. She is intrigued by the beauty of everyday life and how the beauty of memories (real or imagined) touches us.
Couldn’t have been more excited to talk with Olivia. I’d followed her work for years on Flickr, saw her electric rise from an enthusiast to a talented professional, watched her work evolve and astound.
What struck me most in our conversation, and from the few times I’d gotten to meet her, was how grounded she was, despite her success, and despite her obvious abilities as a photographer. I was surprised at her rooted sense of self, and impressed at her drive. Many people, they’ve one or the other, but it was exciting to talk with someone who had so much of both.
This interview has been edited for clarity and content.
Work. I feel like the last year of my life, I’ve worked a lot, but I’ve also been busy falling in love, and been busy figuring out my friends in New York, and seeing them off as they go to college. I’ve always been really work oriented, when I say focused on play, I was still working every day, but gave myself more time to mess around. But now I’m definitely trying to hunker down more and really focus more on long-term projects, work on videos more, and start training my brain that way.
I’ve also been reading a bunch of books; I have a lot of down time right now, so I’ve been reading a lot and watching a lot of movies and listening to crying kids (there are children crying in the background. We have the authorities remove them), I’m just trying to work on my story-telling abilities, character development, stuff like that. Also, the nature of my work is changing, like I used to run around with kids all the time and we’d go have a blast and take pictures, but I feel like now that I live in New York, people’s idea of fun as you get to 21 is going to a club, or going to a bar, and stuff like that. I have less of those magical photo-taking moments in my life because I’m not 17 anymore.
So I have to, not stage them, but set those up. Like, we’re going on a road-trip from New York to Texas, that’s what we just did after the Flickr thing (we first met Olivia at Flickr’s inaugural 20 under 20 event, in September 2014), and take a lot of pictures. Or…I’m gonna plan a trip in the spring to go take a bunch of pictures. I’m more focused on work, but play is a part of my work because a lot of my pictures are people having fun, but I think that’s changing a lot because I’m starting to set up more dreamscapes, and set up more situations for people to have a really good time in, rather than just happening upon this magical place in San Francisco where a bunch of kids are having fun or on drugs or whatever. So…things are changing.
Well, I was living in Baltimore right after high school, I’m from Portland. But my boyfriend in high school moved to Baltimore because he was going to MICA (the Maryland Institute College of Art). A lot of my friends were moving out of Portland and I didn’t really have… I mean, there’s business in Portland, but it wasn’t necessarily…I needed to make a change. So I moved to Baltimore because I wanted to go to the east coast, I had never been to the east coast before. So that’s what I did. I hated Baltimore, it was the worst time in my life, I was really deep super-depressed, struggling with anorexia a lot, it was the worst 5 months of my life. Like, rock bottom. Then I moved to New York, and it was still pretty rough, but I just couldn’t be in Baltimore anymore, and New York…everything in the world happens in New York, you might as well try it out. And for a year it was really hard.
I feel like it’s kind of hard to make friends there if you just move there. I wasn’t going to school, I mean…I had my job, but when I work with people that are a lot older than me, and especially at 18 moving to New York, it’s like “I don’t know if I want to hang out with 30-year-olds all day, I should probably figure out people my own age.” So it was hard initially making friends. And I’m also not super-extroverted, like, I can talk at a party and I can figure out my extroverted self, but I really do prefer one-on-one hang outs and being with good friends, or a group of really good friends rather than going to a bar and meeting with 40 people. So that was hard for me in the beginning. What was your initial question? Why did I move to New York? Because everything in the world happens in New York! And now I’m there and I’m happy and I’m about to probably move closer to the city. I’m in Bushwick, so I would rather be either in South Williamsburg or Lower Eastside – closer to all the stuff that happens in New York. I feel like a lot of the shit in Brooklyn…it’s like the same as what happened in Portland when I was a teenager there. Kids hanging out, going to shows, which is great, but I’d like to be around more of that, “we live in New York, it’s ridiculous!” and I want to take advantage of that.
Yeah, totally. I’m not sure if that has to do with…I guess that has to do with New York, but definitely things are gaining momentum more. I feel like ever since I started taking pictures, things have been slow but consistently going up, so that seems to be how it’s still going, but that’s fine with me. People look at my work…I’m in a lot of magazines, and people interview me, and I’ve got big things on the way, my client list is great. But it’s still like I’m not getting ten calls a day for crazy shit. It’s more slow, which is totally fine with me. I have a few commercial jobs a year, my monetary situation is fine, I am with two great agencies that keep me taken care of, and I have free time to think about projects, at least right now!
I’m sure in a month I’ll be slammed for two months. There was a period, I think it was two months ago, where I was in New York for a while, then I was in San Fransisco speaking and having meetings for three days, then back to New York for two, then I went to Paris for five for a job, then I went back to New York for three, then I went to Madrid, then to Portugal, then I came back for three, four days in New York, then went to Las Vegas for four, then back to New York. It gets like that. That is my life pretty consistently.
Yeah! That happens all the time. Right now I’ve got a little bit of down time, and I’m working on a video that’s going out on Friday. Things are consistently going up, but I’m not…well, today I’m not overwhelmed. That totally could change.
Naturally of course, anything will overwhelm you if there’s so much of it. Yeah, but I’m a pretty grounded person, and I put myself down a lot, so I’m always like “that’s good, but it’s not great.” Just keeping myself on the ground…
Yeah, so I don’t get overwhelmed by “oh I’m doing this crazy awesome shit.” I’m never like that, unless I am really on an ego trip, but that doesn’t really happen that often.
It’s fine, but I’m working with my therapist to like not put myself down so much. “Give yourself a break, it’s fine, it’s good that you did good.” But yeah, of course I get overwhelmed sometimes on a project, or a day that I have like 10 interviews. It really comes and goes, my life is so inconsistent that if I’m overwhelmed, I’m really overwhelmed, but if I’m not overwhelmed, I’m not. That doesn’t answer your question at all. My life is so inconsistent.
A lot of…I’ve been reading a lot of, like, books by powerful women. I’m reading Wild right now, I just read Dear Sugar, I read Lena Dunham’s book. I’ve been reading Miranda July’s short stories, they’re so good. Her way of storytelling and use of words. When I read her words, they relate to visuals for me, but not in like a, “he was in the kitchen,” kind of way, but more in terms of color and texture and things like that. I relate them to her word choice. And then I’ve been reading books about people in New York just to be like, ”yeah, you live in New York, it’s awesome, don’t worry!”
Yeah, for the most part. I learned how to work in a dark room in middle school, and I learned how to use a digital camera kind of by myself. I wanted to buy a digital camera, because…I don’t know, I wanted to buy a digital camera, and I was 13. So I went to the store with my parents, and the person behind the desk recommended this camera to me because I wanted to be able to put vintage lenses on it, and they helped me with that. I don’t know, it’s been a slow process of learning. I feel like I still don’t know how to properly use a camera, like totally. If you give me a new camera, it really takes me a long time to figure it out. But I think it’s way more important to know how to take a picture than to use a camera.
Yeah, totally. Nothing is ever good enough in my mind. I’m always thinking, ”I could have done more, I should have done more.“ I’m learning how to put that to rest a little more too, but I think it’s also a good thing, I always want to do more, I’m always striving for the next thing, nothing is ever really good enough, it could always be better, which is a good and a bad thing for your brain, for your work. Definitely always trying to learn, been doing more medium format these days, I really want to start shooting on 4×5 and 8×10. We’re shooting 16mm for this film we’re doing on Friday, I’m really excited about that because I’ve only ever shot Super 8, or with an Alexa or a 5D. Learning how to use more equipment, learning more about fashion; I always buy the collections book, or watch the shows online if I’m not there in person. I’m not there very often in person, I hope I start getting invited to more shows. I love that shit! I went to the Chanel Dallas show last winter, and that was one of the most pivotal fashion moments of my life. I just understood so much and was just like ,”fuck, I’m totally in the right place.” It was so inspiring, got me on this whole cowboy jaunt. Definitely always trying to learn. I try to learn something new every day, that’s not something I consciously tell myself, but I’m trying to grow every day. I’ve been writing more too, I’ve been trying to expand more of what I do, so writing more, and I’m trying to get back into drawing and kind of curating my world, coloring my world in the way I want to see it, just even in my life.
Yeah, I want to do more narrative stuff, but I feel like I’m not ready, which is a big thing to admit to myself. I wrote this film, I started it in January, and I wrote this short film and have been revising it all year, and it’s just not there yet. I gave it a rest in August, I was just like, “let it be, I’ll come back to it.” So I’m gonna get ready to get back on that. But that’s why I’m reading so much, and watching a lot of movies. Even just picking up on character development and talking to other artists about how they develop their characters, figuring out how people do things.
Yeah, well…even just people at parties who are in the same line of work, or…my boyfriend’s friend, Francis, she’s a director, and she wants to get together with me and bounce ideas off of me, I want to bounce ideas off of her about character development. My producers at Iconoclast, specifically Elias Belkeddar, he has been helping me a lot with that kind of stuff, and being like, “no push it this way, push it that way. You can do this, you can do that. Maybe he should be thinking this, or how would he react if he did this?” He’s helped me a lot. I think I need to get paired up with a writer. I really love writing, and I feel like I’m good at directing where a story is to go, but coming up with the initial this this and this happens is sometimes hard for me, but I can do it 75% of the way, I just need someone to help me. So maybe I’ll grow into that, or maybe I’ll just meet with more people, I don’t know.
I also don’t edit in my head yet with video stuff, like, my other producer in France, Mourad, Elias’ brother, was telling me, “great filmmakers edit in their head, and you don’t have that yet.” And I was like, you’re totally right. I go on a set if I’m making a video, which I haven’t done a lot of , I’m talking about it like I do it every day, but I don’t. I definitely am like, “let’s get all that we can get,” and I’ll go back to the editing room and be like, “fuck! I wish I had that and that and that!” But I just didn’t think about it when I was on set, because I was too involved in the current thing that we were making. So, I’m trying to work on that too, making sure that I have all the parts, and thinking about all the different scenarios. Maybe it’s a memory thing, I don’t know. It’s a lot to keep in your head, but the current video I’m story-boarding I feel like I have a much better grasp of it than the last time I did it, which is positive to me.
I don’t think I want to study it. If I were to go to school it probably would be for film or writing rather than photography.
Yeah. That’s definitely where I’m going more. Photography is always going to be a part of my life, I’m always going to love pictures, I’m always going to make pictures, but I would like to make feature films some day. Hopefully not in the too-far future. Make short films, music videos. I’m also just so picky, I turn down a lot of stuff, things I could do but I think, “no, I don’t like that song,” or, “no, this doesn’t feel right to me.” Everything that I do in my career has to feel like a progressive step forward. Especially with my film career, that is not really a thing yet, it’s just happening slowly that I want it to be. I am really really really picky about what I do.
I just hate making something that I feel like I’ve done before. Which of course, everyone does something they’ve done before. For a commercial job, it’s different, but if it’s an editorial that I want people to see, or something like that, or something that I’m putting my heart into, it has to be something new, it has to be something going forward. Because I don’t like regressing, I really don’t like regressing.
No, I think it’s more that there are so many things I want to make, there’s so many different…life’s only so long! There are so many things I want to make, and I go through phases really fast, I’ve always kind of been like that, from the way I dress…there are so many phases that I want to go through that I want to explore so many things that I want to draw inspiration from. There’s just so much shit that I want to do! That’s the bottom line.
Naturally everyone feels jealous sometimes, everyone feels a sense of competition or something like that, but I don’t focus on it. I recognize the feeling and let it go, because it doesn’t do anything for me. It’s not a race…well, it Is a race, but it’s a race with yourself, not all the other people doing the same thing. And something I have been telling myself, I hate to compare myself to people, it’s not something that anyone wants to do, and it’s not healthy for anybody really, but when I do compare myself to someone, and it’s like they got a certain job and I didn’t, the thing I keep coming back to is, my work is not trendy, I don’t think it’s…I really don’t focus on… It’s not like in style or out of style. I think the way I photograph and make stuff, I don’t think it’s very 2014 and it’s not internet and it’s not, “this is what’s happening now.” It just happens to be happening now. Of course the internet has helped with my success and my career, it is modern, but it’s not so in this niche of being, “this is what is happening right now, this is the trend.”
Well I am, but I think that stuff can get diluted so fast, so the content of it can be not good. Of course naturally it’s competitive, especially if you’re up for a job, like a commercial job and there’s ten other photographers and you don’t get it, but that happens all the time. You don’t get 20 jobs out of 21 jobs. But then that one will pay rent for like half a year! Of course you’ll feel natural competition. But I don’t think it’s that healthy. It’s not something I try to focus on, it comes into my mind, but I try not to focus on it.
Yeah, absolutely. I’m inspired by a bunch of different people. A bunch of my friends are doing really well, and I’m super super happy for them. I look at a bunch of photography, I look at a bunch of fashion, I look at a bunch of directing, I’m on Tumblr a lot, I have a lot of people I follow on Instagram, I’m trying to constantly feed myself with images and art and what’s going on.
I’m not like Miley Cyrus, people don’t follow me around with cameras, but definitely I get recognized in New York sometimes, and when I go to art parties, there will be a bunch of 14-year-olds that come say hi, and I think that’s adorable, I like it. I’ve never super-struggled with that, I’ve never really been afraid to show what’s going on in my life. But recently, in the last year or two, as my face is more places, things start to speed up and I have more Instagram followers or Flickr followers. I have been holding off from presenting a certain image, I have probably a thousand pictures of my boyfriend in bed, but I haven’t posted all of them, stuff like that.
Yeah, keep some stuff private. I did this whole project, my boyfriend and I went up and stayed at his brother’s place in upstate New York, it looks like this little love shack in the woods, and I have pictures of him and the beautiful nature around. It’s like the weekend we really really fell in love, but I haven’t shown the photos at all. I made him a book, and that’s it. I feel like they’ll live somewhere someday, but I’m just keeping them close right now. I have some pictures like that. There’s some pictures I’m saving for later, too. And it’s also the kind of thing where those kinds of photos I would be okay with having them in a gallery or in a book, but for me there’s definitely stuff I don’t post on Instagram that I will put on my other social media.
I love Instagram, I think it’s great, I think it’s an awesome thing to look at all the time, but for some reason, the commenting and the number of likes, sometimes I don’t want to put something like that…I wouldn’t put a photo of Arthur in bed on Instagram. But I would be okay with putting it on Flickr because that site’s more art-oriented, less, “I’m bored on social media” -oriented. It’s a different kind of attention. The way that people interact with that kind of thing. And some things I’m totally fine with putting on a website, because no one can comment on it. People see it, and they usually can’t even send a link to that specific image. I think that’s different then putting it on Instagram, “this is the number of likes it has, the number of comments, these people said nasty shit.”
I just did…I photographed one of the girls from Dance Moms, Maddie Ziegler, for Elle, and I have all these 9-year-olds commenting on my Instagram pictures of everything that has nudity, and of course with Instagram you have to put a star over the nipple or something like that, so everything’s safe, but they’re like, “why the fuck would you take pics of this shit?!” They’re like 9 and I’m just…you don’t understand. “This is disgusting! You look horrible! Why would you ever get naked on camera?!” And I’m like, “oh my god, I’m over 18, this is my art, shut up.”
Yeah, exactly,“get out of here.” But whatever. One time I got in trouble because my friend’s parents found out we had a party at my friend’s house when they were out of town, that was the only real privacy thing, everyone was mad, I was just like “fuck, sorry guys, I didn’t know your parents read my blog.” I was like 16 or something.
I’ve always taken, I’ve taken pictures of myself for a long time, but I kind of didn’t do that for a few years just because, I didn’t know why, I just wasn’t in that…I’ve always taken pictures of myself, I took a lot of pictures of myself from 14 to 16, and then 17 to 19 I was kind of done with taking pictures of myself, but I’ve recently come back to that. I think that part of it is me growing up, and some of it is just the body as a tool. It’s not like “hey, look how great my ass looks in this picture!”
Oh, that’s what it is all about. That’s why I make pictures!
Using the body as a canvas for showing an emotion, showing a feeling, and the movement and the light. A lot of my photographs lately are, I feel, reminiscent of Renaissance paintings, and pre-Raphaelite paintings, and taking inspiration from classic art, and the form has always been a part of that. That’s also me looking at my naked body in a mirror and being like, “hmm. I kind of look like one of those weird girls in a painting.” Like I’m not super skinny, but my body sometimes looks like a Renaissance painting, so I feel I should play up that character a lot. Or a lot of my photographs are feelings of hope and longing and blah blah blah, which sometimes you feel hopeful and longing when you’re naked.
I don’t know if it’s a conscious…it’s just how things have gone. I feel like a lot of the moves I make in photographs, it’s not conscious. Like, jobs that I get are definitely a conscious effort to progress things. But photographs I take on my own time, or personal photos, it’s more like, “I’m feeling this, so I’m gonna do this.” It just naturally goes where it goes.
Well, all those people are working for me. It’s sick! I had a lot of trouble when I was going to film my first video, for Cacharel, it came out in February but I filmed it two springs ago. I was like, “fuck, someone else is gonna have the camera, I don’t know how to deal with this, what am I going to do?” And my boyfriend at the time said, “no. Just think of him as your hands, he can do what you can do, but he can do it better cause it’s his job, he’s a DP.” And it was the same for, “no, I want to do the girl’s makeup! I want to style everything!”
I did end up styling a lot of it, I’m always heavily involved in things, but it’s about finding people on the same vibe as you, and they have to listen to you, you’re the boss. It’s about creating your vision with other people who can be better hands or better eyes for certain things than you have, but can help make that vision more complex and more robust and figuring that out. Of course the client is going to control…they’re the main boss, and my producers…we’re working for each other I guess, I don’t know how that relationship works. I work for Mourad and he works for me, we’re working together. But no, I haven’t really found a bunch of…sometimes it’s harder to tell two hundred people what you want done than to ask your friend to hold the reflector or something like that, of course. It’s a matter of confidence, too. Just knowing, I’m choosing to do it this way because this is my vision, this is how I’m doing it, this is what my brain sees this piece of art or situation as. Trust your gut.
Yeah. I can turn off my subconscious “I hate you!” thing.
Yes, like my personal life. But I still get nervous before I go on set, like “oh my god I’m gonna lose all my talent and all my abilities right before I go.” I always have that fear, it’s so stupid and irrational. It’s never happened to me, everything has been fine. I’ve never walked away from a shoot thinking, “that was shit.” I definitely still get nervous, or if I’m explaining my ideas in a meeting, in my brain I’m thinking, “oh my god, they must think this is so stupid.”
It’s also so hard to describe visuals in words. To talk about photography, whatever, I do it all the time, we’re doing it right now, but it’s like, “did you see my pictures?” It’s like, what does a photograph mean? What does your photo mean? It’s up to interpretation for you, but I made the picture, I don’t need to talk about it. So describing visuals to people who are going to help you make that visual can be really hard, because it can sound so stupid when I say it in words. “But no, it’s this really romantic beautiful sparkly gorgeous thing that’s going to be made!” But in words, it sounds like shit.
Do I get scared about work?
Oh, I don’t think about it. There’s always that thing in the back of my mind, “I hope this goes well.” But as long as I can keep making pictures, I’m good. I don’t really worry about it, I make sure I put my money in the right places, so I can live if I don’t have work for a while. I’m also represented by two great agencies, so I’m not worried about not ever getting a job again. And they’re not going to drop me. Well…watch, now I’m gonna get a call saying we’re not going to work together any more.
I love both, but I do really love being in an editing room and figuring out how different photographs can work together to create a story. That’s one of my favorite parts, doing color, and figuring out how they go together. But I love taking pictures. When I get a really great picture, and you feel that, almost in your bones, like “fuck yeah that’s so good,” that’s such a good feeling. And then seeing it in a spread or on a wall or in a book, that’s tight.