Olivia Bee is 22. But all of the photos collected in her first book, Kids in Love, were taken when she was a teenager, mostly between the ages of 15 and 17.
Kids in Love, which gets its Portland release this week at Nationale, has the rare duality of being a mature body of work delivered from a young perspective. Bee's images (one of which is on this week's cover) are beautiful, evocative of everything from David Lynch to Francesca Woodman, in highly saturated shades of pink, purple, and red. Though digitally manipulated, the photographs—of herself, boyfriends, friends—don't look staged, and are instead intimate, naturalistic portraits of actual teenagers as they are, with freckles and messy hair, in floral prints and slouchy flannels, under yellowish lighting, with authentically bad posture and an aura of awkward possibility, glimpsed through an ethereal, fairy tale-like lens.
Thanks to a combination of digital and analog techniques, they also don't look overly fucked-with. They bear none of the excessive polish many contemporary photographers employ—and that too often produce images that feel more akin to digital animation than anything approximating documentary work (oh hey, uncanny valley).
Another critical distinction: Bee's images of youth were taken when she was the same age as her subjects. This gives them an immediacy that's frequently absent from youth-focused projects by adult photographers. Lauren Greenfield and Rineke Dijkstra are art school staples for a reason, but the gaze of an adult attempting to read youth culture will always be a distorted one.
While those images can carry a detectable coldness, as a collection, Kids in Love is overtly romanticized and sentimental—I intend both as compliments, because there's an appreciable difference between hollow hokum and genuine sentiment, and Bee's work is full of pure feeling, which is a key to her process. "I would say almost everything I do, besides the narrative behind it, it's all about feeling," she says. "I'd rather feel than think when I'm making stuff. I'll be at a photoshoot or something and we'll be setting up a shot and... it's often the first one that's the best because I'm not thinking about it. I'm just letting my hands do it, and then that's always the best one."
When I call her work romanticized, then fumble for a descriptor that doesn't double as an art world pejorative, she interrupts me.
"No, it is romanticized," she says. "No, people are like, 'Do you feel bad about romanticizing things?' And I'm like, no."
Bee grew up in Portland, and now lives in Brooklyn. As a photographer, she's had a huge amount of commercial success, with editorial shoots for outlets like Elle and the New York Times, and commissions for corporate clients like Nike and Vans. Her Instagram account, @oliviab33, is a delightful, color-splashed, definitely NSFW record of her work, featuring everything from documentation of her fashion photography to self-portraits to very well-composed shots of knuckle tattoos and slices of pizza.
Kids in Love presents, in a sense, the genesis of all of those later projects.
"A lot of the magic of being a teenager is doing things for the first time," Bee says, when I ask her what's changed since she took those photographs. "Everything is really magical when you're 17... You're having sex for the first time and you're like, this is horrible, but I think it's really magical. Or you're doing drugs for the first time and it's a whole new experience, and... I'm not 17 anymore."
Getting older, says Bee, is what ultimately made possible the jump from photo series to publishing—transforming a raw collection of intuitively made images into a book that functions as both a loose narrative and a highly personal document that mines teenage identity, seemingly in real-time. It's a rare project that casts palpable sentiment as a conceptual necessity, and ultimately, a vehicle for self-definition.
"I didn't really know what I was doing," Bee says of that period in her life. "But looking back on it, I can see that I was really talking about the universe that was inside myself."
Kids in Love
by Olivia Bee