Let me just start by saying that Olivia Bee is young. At only 19, she is a professional photographer, working on ad campaigns and editorial shoots around the world. But she began her presentation by stating that, hopefully, people had not come to see her just because of her age. Upon viewing her body of work, it would be a mistake to let her youth eclipse her talent.
Olivia’s presentation is part of the InVision Photography Festival at the ArtsQuest Center in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. When I walked into the theater, I was greeted by a sparkling “Wassup,” the introduction to her presentation and her personality. One of the best parts of listening to her talk was hearing how down to earth she is, and how strikingly honest she is about what she does.
She told the audience that her technical skills are minimal, but what is important is being able to take a good photo – a statement that was surely surprising to some, especially at an event sponsored by Olympus. She also talked about disappointment and its essential role for growth. As she talked about this, a slide appeared in her PowerPoint with an entry from a diary she keeps on her phone: “Life: stop ordering the same thing from the same restaurant.”
One of the first aspects of the industry she addressed is success. Many believe that a lengthy client list is the most important measure of one’s success, but Olivia takes a different approach. Her success is in happiness, and she uses this as her drive when working, because she never feels completely happy with her work. But happiness is one of her three goals when creating, along with “sparkle art” and capturing a beautiful human connection. She listed her idols, including Annie Leibovitz, Tim Walker, and Linda McCarthy, and said that their work makes her “heart sing.”
This feeling, and feeling in general, is the reason for photography, according to Olivia. The common misconception that feeling is weakness and should not be applied to photography, a very thoughtful insight that I believe should be applied not just to photography, but all fields of art. She channels her feelings into something beautiful, and she feels it is essential to “pour your soul into what you do.” Towards the end of her presentation, she quoted Keaton Henson: “I think a lot of art is trying to make someone love you.” In the case of Olivia, it seems that she is focused on love from herself and those closest to her.
When her prepared speech came to an end, she spent the next half hour answering questions from the audience and showing us samples of her work, including a gorgeous Hermes ad campaign and a video that she shot, edited, casted, and directed entirely on her own. These older luxury brands, she said, are looking for a younger makeover, and they have clearly come to the right photographer – her photos feel young and energetic, and many times have an almost ethereal quality with the lighting and styling.
Despite her adult work ethic (she typically works about 80 hours a week and travels to Paris every two weeks), she is still growing into being an adult, and her bright and funny personality shines through constantly. She recently bought Q-tips for the first time, and described it as a “transformative” experience. There was also a lull in the presentation when she tried to fix a technical problem, so she told a joke to the entire auditorium.
Olivia: Hey, did you guys hear about the celebrity who killed her husband? It was Reese!
Someone in audience: Witherspoon?
Olivia: No, with her knife!
After her presentation, I asked her if she had any advice for people who are trying to make it in art or photography. Her advice was to keep doing it – keep improving and work on your craft constantly. And, of course, chase what makes you happy.