“I started taking pictures when it became clear to me that time moves really fast,” says Bella Newman, 24. The Vietnamese American photographer came to this metaphysical realization at 13. Those are rough years. “I started getting all awkward and limby, and I was sad that I wasn’t a kid anymore,” she says. “I preferred feeling more like a creature than a gender item.”
Newman is still a kind of creature. An ethereal veneer—infused with the folklore she absorbed growing up near a rural Amish enclave of central Pennsylvania—blankets her world, making her feel like an outsider in this one. “So many of the everyday things people do are creepy to me,” she says. “Photography allows me to create a crossover between reality and the universe that I live in.”
The image-maker has managed to preserve her eye for the eerie and magical—her “fairy bubble”—where others might allow it to atrophy with age. She recalls, as a child, dressing in white and drifting around the playground, convincing other children that she was a ghost (she notes, matter of factly, that the area she grew up in was haunted). As a teenager, Newman won a photography contest that she didn’t enter (“I still don’t know how that happened”) and her work landed in Teen Vogue as a result, jump-starting her career.
As we speak over Zoom, she leans against the wall, her long hair somehow animate, wrapping itself around the knob of her bedroom door. This reverence for the dark, charmed recesses of childhood has become the throughline in the Brooklyn-based photographer’s work. In her images, the fantastical crash-lands into the quotidian: Rabbits rustle around in ballgowns and Little Bo-Peep look alikes strike raunchy poses on chintzy motel sheets.
“That was the best thing I ever did for myself,” she says of her days haunting the playground, “because I learned how to convince people of something. My work is a reminder that the fantasy is real.” Many photographers approach image-making as a way of revealing certain truths about society, but for Newman, it’s a dance between bodies. “I don’t like to intellectualize what I see as very visual and feeling-based work,” she continues. “Really, it’s about play.”
The Teen Vogue feature that launched Newman’s career quickly blossomed into a series of Vogue photojournalism projects before she’d even finished high school, including one focused on the Amish and Mennonite cultures she grew up around. These insular communities serve as a stylistic North Star for the photographer, who has since graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts with a degree in filmmaking; collaborated with brands like Burberry, Balenciaga, and Marc Jacobs; and walked for Miu Miu.
“The Amish are incredible—they wear their homemade clothes with Oakley sunglasses and New Balance sneakers,” she says. “More people should be like that.” From her older, wiser perch in Brooklyn, Newman recognizes that time moves a bit slower than her adolescent self feared. “When I was younger, I wanted to be in fashion so badly,” she recalls. “But I’m ready to return to the source.” For Newman, the source is America: “this weird marketing technique of a place, and the people that buy it—or don’t."
Want to meet more rising stars? See CULTURED's full list of 2023 Young Photographers here.