Every so often, a young visionary shines so brightly on the fine art photography stage that seasoned emerging and professional fine art photographers take note with envy, amazement, and eventually, applause. What art photographer wouldn’t want to be Olivia Bee? She is twenty-two years old, talented as well as highly in demand to photograph for international magazines and corporate clients. And, she has a book, Kids In Love, published by Aperture in 2016.
I realize that almost every adjective to describe Bee’s work has been used; magical, haunting, dreamy, evocative, ethereal, lyrical, utopian, and “Nan Goldinesque.” Personally, I am struck by the sense of nostalgia the images from Kids In Love possess as if Bee recounts the 1970’s in modern day or as if they never ended. How does one so young have so much desire and longing as evidenced in the photographs? It seems as if Bee herself knows she will be looking back at the imagery in later years with a sense of yearning and melancholy; to return to what one can’t return to, youth. The images in her book Kids In Love make me hunger for my youth; if only I can touch it briefly through Bee’s photographs like Pre-Kiss.
Bee discovered photography in middle school and in an American Dream-like way rose to fame through social media, Flickr and Instagram to be exact. Because the images are so profoundly attached to the sentiment of memory, Bee’s technical response is often blurry, creating the passage of time, or with highlights that have blown out and shadows too dark. Her palette intentionally seduces, then replicates the 1970’s Kodak’s print processing with cyan and magenta color shifts as well as homages to Kodachrome’s reds and yellows. It's as if all these vintage colors combine to suspend a fragment of time.
There are also technically perfect images in Kids In Love, such as in Fingertips: realistic skin tones, highlights, and details of firm young bodies that are painfully beautiful. There are moments Bee’s flash blows out the foreground creating an underlying grit and graininess in the print. This effect culminates in a dream state that would beg the obsessive-compulsive photographer to go back to Lightroom and make corrections.
If Bee had been my student, I wonder if I would see beyond the intentional technical imperfections to embrace and reward her metaphoric vision. I am often very demanding of young students in my Photo 1 classes who try to pass off technical errors for aesthetic appeal and conceptual meaning. I question if I have possibly discouraged a potential Olivia Bee by telling her to get the technical down first and then she may take license with the camera. I also wonder if we, the veteran photo purists, often make too much of technical skills, so much so that it takes over our work and sets an unyielding path of precision to follow?
What would it be like to photograph while dismissing highlights, shadows, noise, and grain, to purely behold a moment in all its imperfect details and shadowy possibilities that result from following an intuitive, playful and spontaneous vision? Maybe, many of us have seen too much and know too much to allow ourselves that vulnerability, unlike Olivia Bee, who seems to be responding to a deep need to grasp the metaphorical possibilities of photography sans seemingly technological perfection.
When questioned if she considered herself self-taught in an interview with Lou Noble in The Photographic Journal online publication, Bee states, “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 don’t know, and 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 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.”
I can teach students technical skills rather effortlessly, but training and refining their eye is more difficult, and at times, it simply doesn’t work. In years past, I would have told Bee, as my student, that it is equally important to know both how to use the camera and how to frame an image; knowledge of your camera can further your vision. I'm not sure if I would tell her that anymore given the work from Kids In Love. I don’t want to be stunned and seduced by her colorful, nostalgic cinematic vision, but I am, undoubtedly.