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Olivia Bee is not your typical American teenager. For one thing, people want to hear what she has to say – and are willing to pay for the privilege. A good thing, too, since the disarmingly self-assured 18-year-old has plenty to say. Already financially independent and living in Brooklyn, New York (she’s originally from Portland, Oregon), Bee takes photographs, often of friends, which lean towards the documentary but have a foothold in art. She’s been doing it since the age of 11. “I took a photography class in sixth grade, and I started putting the pictures on Flickr, to show people what was going on in my life.” She quickly established a cult following and by 15, she had turned professional.
Nan Goldin is a major influence, but while Goldin’s photographs portrayed the seamier side of sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, Bee finds a dreamlike, innocent colour in her friends’ gently dissolute experimentation. There are no grimy bedsits or drug paraphernalia on show here; she makes being a teenager look bohemian and enticing. Beautiful youth is a marketing man’s dream, of course, and so at breakneck speed she has taken the art – and advertising – worlds by storm.
Given that so many established photographers want to break into the lucrative world of advertising, it’s a remarkable achievement. How did it happen?
“Converse‘s ad agency, VSA, saw my stuff on Flickr and kept emailing me saying they wanted to work with me. I thought it was spam – I didn’t know what an ad agency was, let alone VSA Partners,” she shrugs. “Eventually Converse emailed me: ‘Did you get the emails from our ad agency? Why aren’t you responding?’ Only then did I get it. And so when they did a shoot in Portland [where she was at school] they brought me on set and had me shoot some stuff.”
Since Converse took that gamble on her at the age of 15, she has shot campaigns for, among others, Nike, Subaru, Levis and Hermès (“They sent me 30 scarves and said, do what you like”), her work has been exhibited all over the world and she has an ongoing series in Le Monde.
Last December, she addressed around 300 women at a TedX conference in Amsterdam: “Nothing gets in my way,” she told them, “because I don’t accept anything getting in my way.” She means it, too. She recently dispensed with a model on an Adidas shoot because she felt she wasn’t listening to her. To say that she’s an achiever would be something of an understatement.
In January, she shot Girls star (and David Mamet’s daughter) Zosia Mamet for the New York Times magazine. This seems a perfect fit – if Bee wasn’t taking pictures of the girls in Girls, she’d probably be one of the girls in Girls. It’s easy to imagine Jessa from that show taking snaps of the other characters, casually hitting the zeitgeist and going stratospheric. But, unlike those actors and contrary to the claims of some sceptics, Bee isn’t “connected”. Her father works in IT and her mother is a hairdresser. Until she turned 18, one of them would chaperone her as she juggled paid assignments with homework.
“It was a legality thing. I also had to have a schoolteacher accompany me. It was kind of what actors have to do when they’re under 18. My parents have been great. They don’t help unless I ask for it, they let me do my own thing.” The work did take its toll on her studies, however. “For a few years, I was a straight-A student but then photos got in the way. I was pretty good at maths and science. I was a good reader and I’m really good at writing and art. I was not good at PE and music class could be stressful. I was pretty academically inclined and smart overall.”
Even with such preternatural confidence, directing people is difficult at any age, especially in the macho world of photography, so where does her authority come from? “I’m an assertive person and I know what I want. And I’m going to get what I want if I can. I know how to do that. Being 18 and a girl can be really hard. People don’t take me seriously – until they see me work. Sometimes, even if they’ve seen my work, they’re still nervous and have to convince their client it’s OK, or they have to lie about it,” she says, candidly.
“Obviously it’s probably hard to trust me straightaway. I know I’m good at my job and I know someone could put any prop in front of me and I could shoot it in a way I think is successful. But it’s still hard. Most photos in advertising are shot by 50-year-old men and I’m not a 50-year-old man.”
Professional jealousy has also been an issue, unsurprisingly. “When I got the Fiat 500 campaign, a lot of men were very angry because a girl who had just turned 17 got that job and they didn’t. When I turned 18, it was a little less of a problem – I was then a very young adult. But often people think I’m a PA or a very small model.”
She may be part of the Instagram generation, but she prefers the timeless quality that film brings to her pictures. “It lends itself to memory; it’s magical. I want to evoke nostalgia in everyone, and to take photos you can relate to, regardless of your situation, your gender, race, where you grew up, whether you’re a teenager…”
Like most high-achievers, she thinks big – her ambition is not limited to photography. “I will make movies at some point,” she declares breezily. “I want to make a feature film. A collection of memories, real and imagined.” It’d be a poor investment to bet against her.
This article was edited on 26 February 2013.
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