Monday, April 25, 2011

Teenage Photographer: Olivia Bee

Olivia Bee is a seventeen-year-old photographer from Portland, Oregon who has been documenting her friends, family and neighborhood since the age of 11. Olivia Bee first shared her work with the public in 2007 via her first Flickr account, and has since been posting to a more recent Flickr account. A couple of years ago she began publishing some of her snapshots and portfolio work to her website., started her Twitter account last November, and began a photography blog this past January 2011.
The photography of Olivia Bee is ripe for discursive analysis relative to 'teenagers in/and the media' for several reasons:
  • The photographer is a teenager
  • Her work spans six years, documenting her life beginning at age eleven through present day – she turned seventeen last month
  • The photographs are (primarily) portraits of teenagers – her friends and herself
  • Bee shares her work publicly via multiple media outlets (flickr, website, blog, twitter)
  • Bee is popular – thousands subscribe or visit her sites
  • Bee is represented by an artist’s agent and has been hired by corporations (Nike, Converse) for professional photography shoots.
With consideration for these reasons, what does Bee’s photography teach us about teenagers? How has her work evolved as she and her friends age? How does her work change when she is getting paid for it? Generally, Bee’s photography functions as a celebration of teenagehood. Her work is highly nostalgic, romantic, and suburban with flashes of grassy lawns, wispy fashion, boyish grins, bicycles, and wholesome outdoor activities.
When Bee was younger, her photography most often depicted herself and her younger brother. As she entered her teenage years, more of her pictures became centered around her large coed social group. The past couple of years have seen an increase in pictures of romantic partners including her own relationship and some of her friends as couples. Part of what makes her pictures romantic is what’s missing: there are no adults, very few images of any school-related environments or activities, little demonstration of materialism, no signs of technology (no cell phones or iPods are in any of her thousands of photographs), no signs of teenagers working, and scant depiction of urban life. 

Leslie Grinner – SCWA(A)MP In other words - and using Grinner's dominant ideological framework - Olivia Bee’s pictures are populated with straight, Christian, white, able-bodied, (American), male, property-holding subjects. There are only a handful of photographs (>10 out of thousands) depicting non-white or non-straight teenagers, and while there are many female teenagers in her work, the majority of the subjects are male. While Portland is less diverse than similarly sized U.S. cities, its non-white population at 22% is not represented in her photographs. Olivia Bee started – and to many extents still is – documenting her community and lifestyle. Does she have a responsibility to produce anti-racist, queer-friendly, pro-female imagery? Is she simply representing her own life as it is populated? Should her photographs be viewed as art, as distinct from media? 

Rebecca C. Raby, A Tangle of Discourses: Girls Negotiating Adolescence Raby identifies five prominent teenage discourses that have been applied to the teenage experience (storm, becoming, at-risk, social problem, pleasurable consumption). Primarily, Olivia Bee's photography invoke becoming and downplay the other four. But I do think her photography does not fit neatly into these discourses - which is precisely Raby's point. Bee's photography avoids reducing the teenage experience to 'perceived discourses' and I think this is in large part because the producer is a teenager herself. To expand upon this notion that Bee's photographs rarely invoke stereotypical teenage discourses beyond becoming, I think this can also be criticized. Olivia Bee's photography invokes the magic of teenagehood - and ignores the difficulties that can be associated with being a teenager (social anxiety, consumption, insecurity, sharing time/space with parents, burgeoning sexuality and activity, bullying) - in a way that makes her work heartening but misleading as an accurate portrayal of her life. Olivia Bee's Commercial Work I think it is a combination of the storm-less magical teenage world - inhabited by subjects adhering more or less to dominant ideology standards as outlined by SCWAMP - that makes Bee's work marketable. 


David Croteau, Media and Ideology

The media give us pictures of social interaction and social institutions that, by their sheer repetition on a daily basis, can play important roles in shaping broad social definitions. In essence, the accumulation of media images suggests what is “normal” and what is “deviant.” (P 163)
Olivia Bee's photographs - while challenging some of the more popular teenage discourses - do embody 'normalcy' as noted by Croteau. The photographs depict a slice of Americana that is saccharine, wholesome, and admirable to many. There is also the added bonus of the viewer experience the 'secret life' of the American teenager - the viewer sees them in their own habitat, unburdened by adults, school, work, or problems. While not purposely trying to add to the repetitive discourse of what is normal and what is deviant, by virtue of her work and time being purchased for dissemination by major media outlets, Olivia Bee becomes complicit in the act. The "normalcy" discourse is striking - particularly in her Nike photo shoot. 

Recent Work Olivia Bee turned seventeen less that one month ago and her work has rapidly begun changing. Her work has been likened to Ryan McGinley, whose first solo show at the age of twenty-five at the Whitney depicted a "downtown neverland where people are thrilled and naked, leaping in front of graffiti on the street, sacked out in heaps of flannel shirts—everything very debauched and drug-addled and decadent, like Nan Goldin hit with a happy wand. Part of what made McGinley so famous (like Goldin before him) was that he offered not just an artist’s vision of a free and rebellious alternative life but also the promise that he was actually living it, through photos that looked spontaneous, stolen, of an intimate cast of characters, a family of friends." (New York Magazine, 7/7/07) The Whitney curator explained that McGinley's subjects, "are performing for the camera and exploring themselves with an acute self-awareness that is decidedly contemporary. They are savvy about visual culture, acutely aware of how identity can be not only communicated but created. They are willing collaborators." While Bee's friends have always been self-aware subjects in pictures, the activities she has been depicting now represent more of the 'deviant' as defined by Croteau and illustrate some aspects of Raby's seedier teenage discourses.

Hear what Olivia Bee has to say about taking pictures (and of course be a responsible consumer knowing the video was commissioned and funded by Converse! :| )

1 comment:

  1. Speaking as someone who has followed Olivia's work for upward of five years (the last of those years being the end of my own teenage years), I can understand how some of the conclusions here were drawn from seeing her work all at once - as opposed to seeing them happen in real time.

    When I first found Olivia's photos, most were posed, some with an underlying message to get across (or interpret yourself), and they were predominantly photos of her and her brother. For me, a teenager at the time, the shift in style/subjects felt gradual. In a sense I was growing with her, and I feel that gave me somewhat of an advantage while viewing her work, as well as a perspective only young adults my age could have.

    Each photo Olivia shared as time went on seemed less deliberate, and felt a lot more real. I grew to envy parts of her teenage years as she documented herself and her friends (as stated in this article) seemingly unburdened by overbearing parents, pressures at school/work, and noisy technology. Whether that was deliberate or not, I cannot say, but I felt that if it was intentional, it was because she found those moments to be her favorite parts of being a teenager.

    While parts of the article above are views I agree with and understand, I feel as though many aspects of her work were overanalyzed. I do not feel it was Olivia's intention not to depict "non-white or non-straight teenagers," and I do not believe she purposefully began to take less picture with females being the main focus.

    I, myself, am a gay youth (though I do not like labels), and I can say truthfully that that part of my personality cannot be communicated by just a photograph. I took offense to Grinner's accusations that Olivia's photos are not "queer-friendly," because I believe that is implying that being gay is something you can tell simply by looking at a person. Which, in my case, is quite far from the truth.

    Despite many of the views in this article being the opposite of what I feel (and I believe a lot of photography is interpreted by feelings), I do agree with a lot of it, and their opinions (even the ones I disagree with) are valid. Though I have to point out something I feel was overlooked while critiquing Olivia's work.

    A lot of these critiques draw attention to the shift in her photos, and how some aspects of where she lives were not represented or "documented." While people were busy picking apart her work and delving into a deeper meaning, I think what Olivia told us from the beginning (on her flickr page) was lost. This is her diary, and no matter how you interpret her work, it is her own life she is documenting. To draw a conclusion based on the fact that what she shows you isn't exactly what you see or expect to see when you look at our generation is unfair. Because these are her personal experiences, and who are we to say they are not authentic?