Photos From a Pair of Photographers Exploring Changes in Their Lives
Photographers Olivia Bee and Doug DuBois share their work in our annual photo issue.
For our annual photo issue we reached out to 16 up-and-coming photographers and asked them which photographer inspired them to pursue the medium. Then we approached their "idols" to see if they would be willing to publish work in the issue as well. What was provided, we think, creates a unique conversation about the line of influence between young artists and those more established in their careers. This post features an interview with Olivia Bee and her chosen idol, Doug DuBois, and an explanation of each of their bodies of work.
Olivia Bee is a photographer from Portland, Oregon, but divides her time between Brooklyn and LA. At 14, she photographed a campaign for Converse and has since worked with Adidas, Hermès, Nike, and others. In 2016, she was named to Forbes' 30 under 30 list for the Art and Style category.
Her idol for the 2017 Photo Issue, Doug DuBois, currently teaches photography at Syracuse University and is a faculty member at Hartford Art School's Residency MFA Program. His work has been published in the New York Times, TIME, GQ, and the Telegraph, and has been exhibited at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Aperture Foundation, and the Museum of Modern Art, among many others.
Olivia Bee: Do you use pictures to process your own life?
Doug DuBois: Of course. My guess is you do as well. I feel that you work like a diarist. The camera is a way to record your life. I never did that. I realized I'm less interested in photographing things happening, and more interested in the idea of things happening and making them happen myself. That was a shift for me early on, and I have a feeling you're shifting that way, too. You're creating, recreating, or inventing. That's my sense of your pictures.
Yeah, I think you're right. I guess the pictures I take for my "diary" I use as notes for the series that I'm creating and turn them into a narrative. I still photograph things that are around me because I need it for myself, but as far as art and fulfillment goes, I like to turn the notes into something bigger.
Yeah. So the weird thing is that I have this feeling I'm not as adept at photographing in the moment as I used to be. I always forget that I have a camera with me. That's a generational thing: I didn't grow up having a camera on a phone in my pocket so I need to be in a conscious photographic mode to make a good image.
Is it because you want to be more of a witness to the moment?
I think it's more about muscle memory. There's a way of moving with your eye and your camera that I haven't practiced in so long. A lot of it is because I've been working with big cameras for many, many years. When I use a handheld camera now, my pictures tend to come out blurry because I don't hold it steady. I forget to stop waving it around. And I don't like them. I like your pictures. I look at them, and think, God, I'm not sure I could make that picture if I tried.
Thank you so much!! But you used to be able to make pictures like that, in the moment?Maybe. In my 20s, I didn't see myself as a journalist, because the whole framework of journalism wasn't interesting to me but I was interested in the being out in the world. So my first pictures were of political demonstrations. All the anti-nuke stuff. It was a great adventure. We could sneak in through the police barricades because we looked like protesters, and it was amazing. A real high.
Where was that?
New York and DC when I was an undergrad. It was really fun. We would take a black-and-white film, roll them up into canisters, have like 25 rolls on us, and just go nuts. I loved doing that.
Wow, amazing! What interested you about that? Was it because you were political? Or was it because it was like a dance when you're photographing something that's happening?
It was both. I took grassroots-organizing and nonviolence classes in school. The government had just re-initiated draft registration (since the Vietnam war). So I put up posters in my town in suburban New Jersey, and I got a call from this woman who had protested who was really excited and invited me to a meeting where I met a group of largely middle aged women involved in left wing politics. So we went together to protest at the post office. It was me and a bunch of 40 and 50 year-old women. It was pretty great. I loved the activism and I loved photographing it.
I'm interested then in how you started that shift to setting up photos from that documentation of political situations.
I liked the handwriting in Jim Goldberg's book Rich and Poor and how the people in the pictures responded to their portraits. So I did a series of anyone that would sit for me —friends, family. I'd bring a print back and have them write under it. I had no idea how Jim did it; I didn't know him then. I just naively tried to imitate his work. Ninety percent of the time, they'd write something rather lame. I figured all the amazing things in Jim's book just happened spontaneously. When I met him years later and watched him work, I learned that the text was discussed and directed, just like the photograph.
That's how I learned you can find the truth through questions and collaboration rather than chasing after it with a camera.
I had just started doing the portraits with handwriting when my father fell from a commuter train. After the accident, I shifted from using the camera as a way to venture outside myself to using it as a way to cope with what was happening to me and my family. I moved back home, which was hard, and I made pictures to survive, really. The pictures of my family became a lot more directed. A lot of it was figuring out how to light properly. I was impatient, and I kept screwing it up the most basic bounce flash. I was shooting film, so I'd shoot a whole roll of film and not realize it was underexposed until I got it developed. Eventually, I figured out the exposure in each room of my house.
What is the series called when your dad had his accident?
That's called All the Days and Nights. My first book with Aperture. My father had his accident the summer before I moved to San Francisco for grad school. When I came back after that first semester, I was photographing my parents after dinner, and they were just staring into the mess of the table. Ten days later, my mom tried to kill herself. That's the moment that really shifted things. I was photographing without seeing what was happening right in front of me. Photography was in the way of being there for my family.
The question for me became, how can I reconcile making a photograph with being present. It took me years to figure this out. Part of my solution involves directing and staging the photographs, rather than trying to capture the moment as it unfolds.
That is beautiful. I feel like that makes your pictures stronger, because you're putting everything into those portraits. I want to hear more about your idea of truth in photography. How honest do you think pictures are? Or are they the opposite?
It really just depends on how you define honesty. There are two important things in terms of the honesty of photographs. There's what's involved as the picture is made, but the really important thing is how the pictures are used. How you frame the image in terms of meaning and signification.
When I was photographing in Ireland, a lot of those pictures were performed and invented, but the work is an honest representation of that place and those people. I worked really hard on a book that could exist and have meaning for the community as well as people outside. I worked with Aperture to publish a separate edition of All the days and nights that wasn't for sale but was given away to the people in the photographs. If anything verifies the truth of the work, it's how the book lives within the community -- if it's accepted and becomes part of family and collective memory. If ten years from now, Erin sits down with her daughter, Charley May when she's 17 and uses the book to share their experiences of growing up, then as sentimental as that sounds, I think that's ample proof for the value and truth to the work.
I'd never thought of it like that before and I think it's really special that you think that way because a lot of photographers don't. People are constantly taking pictures of people they don't really know and claiming it as theirs… Tell me about the pictures you made of you partner, Leah.
Over the past year or so, I haven't been photographing much, and I was complaining about it to Justine Kurland, so she said, "OK, I'll make a deal with you. You have to make 100 pictures by December or you owe me $100." So I did it. I don't think I made 100, but I made pictures. I started to photograph Leah because we were having a child together, and to be honest, she was a convenient subject. I was swamped with work at the University and had little time, so we started making pictures together. In the back of my head was a body of work by my colleague, Laura Heyman— a series called The Photographer's Wife. She gently and smartly parodied the tropes used by male photographers employing their wives and significant others as muses. Stieglitz, Callahan… that whole genre. I kept telling myself, "I don't want to be part of that"—putting a woman on a pedestal of beauty, artifice, and romanticizing how women can create life (although, Hmm, well it's hard not to...) . So I tried making pictures that were a little tougher and reflected my anxieties of being a father. Trump had just gotten elected, and the whole world is fucked up. Some pictures were done in the middle of the night when we were both awake and stunned at what was about to happen.
I would say, "Let's make a picture." And , 3 hours later at 3AM we'd be done and exhausted. Leah was always game and incredibly patient. In the end, I'm not sure if I succeeded in avoiding any of the patriarchal trappings that Laura Heyman so expertly critiques.
But Leah and I now have a son, Cyrus who is all of ten days old and I've been using my cell phone more than ever to take pictures -- maybe that's all I need to do for now.
Olivia Bee's accompanying poem:
i bought a blue dress so i could slip into the sky;
to cradle tangibility with camouflage,
dusk's disappearance transpiring, the poison seeping, pooling around my ribs.
begging for affection from anyone while indian summer rain races towards wet earth,
feeling the wilderness of your weight.
i've heard death is like water.
and you were born in the morning.
your tiny eyelashes painting a silver sunset inside our mother.
settling like cobalt ash raining onto my shoulders.
you are the other woman and your voice is strong and wild when it billows in the wind,
dissipating like grey confetti.
i hear it in oregon, speaking amongst the thunder.
(the rain sounds like a skittish heart)
i hear your gentle whisper embedded in my sheets (always).
how on earth can you harness love?
such became a death sentence,
your shadow of silver, holding my body in the light.
i feel you deepest when i want love the most.