At this point, the precocious photographer Olivia Bee has recounted her origin story probably hundreds of times: “I signed up for video production at my middle school and then they gave me a photography class instead,” she said. “We were working in the dark room as 11-year olds, you know, and I was so bad at it at first. But it slowly just became something I was super addicted to, and then it just became the way that I processed the world.”
Others took note, too. By the time she was 15, Bee had shot a Converse campaign, and by 17, her work landed on the cover of The New York Times Magazine. It’s a trajectory almost as surreal as the hazy photos from her teenage years in Portland, Oregon that got her started, which have long drawn acclaim for the way they capture adolescence. Bee’s always started with posting her work online—as part of the process of "letting go”—but now, at 22, she’s excited they’re getting a paper release. "It doesn't feel like mine anymore, which is so cool. It's really nice to move on,” she said.
Kids in Love, published this month by Aperture, is divided into two sections: “Enveloped in a Dream,” where mostly staged shots show her friends running through snow in party dresses and lying on mattresses in grassy fields; and “Kids in Love,” which is “just slice of life stuff, that’s exactly what was happening,” Bee said. “I mean, with a few exceptions—I’m not always kissing my boyfriend underwater, you know? But I am a romantic.” Which is why, she says, the photos are all “documentary with a romantic eye”—showing her forays into sex, drugs, and alcohol, with plenty of now ex-boyfriends along the way.
Bee still keeps in touch with all those friends, but at this point, she's past nostalgia: “It’s its own thing now. It’s its own story that I wrote out of my own life, and now other people are able to relate to it and experience it, but also elevate it with their own experiences,” she said.
Now a long way from Portland and based in Brooklyn, Bee she says she’s “bad at making pictures in New York.” If true, that hardly matters much: She’s only in town for less than a week every month. This year alone, she’s been to London, Paris, L.A., Portland, Scotland, Alaska, Arizona, Missouri, and Iceland, commissioned for projects like the Valentino Red and Vans campaigns, commercial lifestyle shoots, and fashion editorials. Sometimes, she finds it even takes her back to Oregon: “I just did a shoot for CR Fashion Book that we shot on the streets of Paris. That’s how I grew up shooting pictures, just finding the magical places in the neighborhood or in nature,” she said. “It was cool to go back to those roots.”
It’s clear, though, that Bee is definitely ready to move on from those beginnings: “Being marketed as a ‘young photographer’ is not sustainable. I don’t want that to define me, and I don’t let it define me,” Bee said, wondering aloud what things will be like when she’s 30. “All I can do is make good shit.”