Smells Like Teen Spirit: Tavi Gevinson Interviews Olivia Bee

Olivia Bee
Olivia Bee
Untitled, 2009

Olivia Bee

Converse, 2009

At 11, Olivia Bolles started shooting when she was enrolled in a photography class by accident. Now 17, the precocious Portland-based photographer’s portraits of teen life have appeared in campaigns for Nike and Converse, as well as American Photo magazine. Bolles—who goes by Olivia Bee professionally—spoke to fellow teen, Style Rookie fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson, to talk about her images and inspirations.

TG: Who are your influences?

OB: For the most part, my muse is everyday life. It’s kind of like enjoying where you’re at and appreciating what’s going on around you. Photographically, Ryan McGinley is my favorite. [Also,] Annie Leibovitz, Nan Goldin.

TG: Something about your photos I really like is [that] they feel really intimate. You feel like you’re getting to learn about this person and her life, but at the same time, a lot of them capture more universal experiences about everyday life as a teenager. Do you think about whether a photo [will be] more diary-like or more about being a teenager in general?

OB: I think it’s both. My photos are my diary. But a lot of the things I photograph I’m sure happen to other people too. That specific moment happened in my life, but other moments like it happened in other people’s lives. So it’s a diary but it’s kind of relatable, and that’s what I want to be doing with my work.

TG: Yeah, and I think that’s one thing I like most about your work—that you’re independent and unedited.

OB: Yeah, it’s all honest, you know? That’s the important part for me, being honest about everything.

TG: It can be so mind-blowing seeing someone’s earlier work, or freshman year versus senior year. Do you ever feel embarrassed?

OB: (Laughs.) Totally. There are some things where I’m like, “Oh my god, what the hell was I thinking?” I look back at my old Flickr, and that’s the stuff that gets on Tumblr like every day. I’m like, “I hate this picture. Why are people hyping over this?” But then I think this is a fortunate thing. I hate it now, but it had to happen to get where I am now.

TG: How do you think that being in Portland affects they way you think about your work or what you end up photographing?

OB: I definitely think it affects me a lot, because in Portland it rains all the time. So everybody plays an instrument, and is in a band and working on a project. Being in a creative atmosphere 24/7 just encourages me to make something every day. And my friends are my muses. Being in Portland is awesome (laughs). It’s such a warm, friendly atmosphere, but it’s really real.

TG: Are there any movies that inspire you?

OB: I’m like every other girl, and I like The Virgin Suicides. There’s this movie Wonderwall. George Harrison did the soundtrack to it. It’s like a really bad 60’s movie, but it’s really beautiful visually. Anything ’60s or ’70s—The Partridge Family. But Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is also a gorgeous movie.

TG: Who are the other young photographers you like?

OB: I love El Hardwick, Francesca Allen … There’s so many people on Flickr, it’s ridiculous. Chrissie White, Maggie Lochtenberg. Oh, and Lauren Poor. And Mike Bailey Gates, obviously, Erica Segovia.

TG: It’s great that with the Internet, there has come this sense of creative independence. Having your stuff online—some people think of it as gimmicky, but in a way, it’s one of the most pure forms of having your work judged.

OB: Because so many people can see it, you know? It’s the only thing that makes sense in 2011. You can have shows or whatever, but that’s going to be seen by like 50 people, or a hundred or a thousand or whatever. But if you put your stuff on the Internet, millions of people can see it.

TG: Do you ever want to balance out this public content? Do you keep anything just for yourself, or just for a show?

OB: There are a lot of photos that are so intimate to me that I don’t want to show other people. Someday when I make a book, I’ll put in all these pictures that I’ve kept secret. And some of them are my favorite photos, but I just don’t think they should be public, because they’re so special to me.

TG: Can you fill in your readers on some of that commercial work you’ve done?

OB: I just finished shooting the Fiat 500 campaign in April. And then I did some Degrassi stuff for TeenNick—production stills. I shot Nike and Converse, Zeit Magazin, which is like the German New York Times. Yeah, that was cool. I got to shoot the cover for that. And then I did the FOAM International Photography Museum magazine; I just did their cover and a feature. I have a really big editorial coming up, but I obviously can’t talk about it in this. 2011 has been a good year to me.

TG: Do you find that when you’re with a crew of people, that your age seems to factor into how they work with you, or talk to you?

OB: When I’ve shot alongside other photographers, sometimes people really look down on me…Sometimes people will be like “What the hell is she doing on this set?” But when you get to know people, [they] kind of become my mentors. It all depends on how long I’ve worked with someone. But it’s still weird (laughs); I’m still 17.

TG: I could definitely see being shot by you as the foray a Dakota Fanning-type would take to being, like, a cool teenager. If you could put together a photo shoot that wasn’t just the things you see every day, what would your dream setting be?

OB: It’d be on the moon cause that’d be so amazing! But I don’t know who my models would be. I like shooting anybody, so the models wouldn’t really be specific. But if it was on, like, the moon—that would be killer.

TG: Where would you like to go with your skills?

OB: Honestly, I just don’t want to stop. I’ve been happy with the kind of commercial stuff I’m doing. I don’t want to stop making personal work. I’m just going to photograph my life all the time, because that’s what I really like doing. As I grow older, I’m sure my pictures will change, but that’s basically what I want to keep doing. I’d love to shoot AnnaSophia Robb; I think she’s just gorgeous. And I’d like to shoot Dakota Fanning or Kate Moss, or someone like that—that’d be fun. Or shoot bands. If I got to shoot The Strokes, I’d basically die.

Seventeen-year-old Olivia Bolles, who goes by the name Olivia Bee, lives in Portland, Oregon and has worked for clients including Nike, Converse, Fiat, and TeenNick, among others. She is represented by Candace Gelman. More of her work can be seen here.

Fifteen-year-old Tavi Gevinson lives in the Chicago, Illinois area and has run the fashion blog The Style Rookie since 2008.

Bolles and Gevinson are working together on Rookie, a new website for teenage girls.

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