Inside the eerie, dreamy world of photographer Petra Collins
15th Jul 2019
“I’ve been photographing people for 12 years,” says 26-year-old Petra Collins. “I’ve grown up from being a teenager to an adult.” The Canadian photographer, best known for her distinctively dreamy imagery – a realm of neon-lit faces, sultry afternoons and girls contemplating themselves in the mirror – has finally turned the camera on herself. And it feels like a new rite of passage.
First rising to prominence in adolescence, partly via sites like Tumblr and later Tavi Gevinson’s magazine – her work capturing the many facets of girlhood – Collins quickly found herself shooting for big-name publications and brands like Gucci and Rihanna’s Fenty line. More than a decade on she’s curated exhibitions, directed music videos for stars including Cardi B, Selena Gomez and Carly Rae Jepsen, and produced numerous books.
Her latest endeavour takes a bold path: Collins, via a series of silicone moulds of her own face and body done in collaboration with sculptor Sarah Sitkin, examines herself up close. The results are eerie: disembodied limbs lolling in the snow, the photographer appearing alongside friends and family in a series of masked set-ups. “I got to… put my body in positions that were my nightmares, my dreams, my desires,” she says of the work.
Skewed and censored
The book has been brewing for a while, borne in part out of Collins’s increasing disquiet with how we exist online. What seemed to be a positive step forward – selfies and smartphones allowing people to both reclaim and frame themselves – has, in her view, been warped. “Facetune… creates such a disconnect between us and our bodies,” she says, “and now I’m seeing people… totally blur their faces into oblivion.” And brands and individuals aren’t being honest about it either. “It seems like there’s this big conversation around individuality and inclusivity, [but] we’re also living in an image world that doesn’t reflect that.”
The project also speaks to an ongoing preoccupation of Collins’s: censorship of the female body. The photographer felt the brunt of this when her Instagram account was deleted in 2013 after she posted a close-up of a torso, pubic hair peeking through bikini bottoms. In she was instead working against her wishes to edit what might be seen: “When we were making [the moulds]… Sarah would be like ‘Do you want me to add this pimple? Do you want me to add this hair?’ and I’d immediately be like ‘No, no, no,’ but then I would say yes.” It was a process she ultimately found liberating. “I realised it’s just flesh, and I’m living in this flesh and have to take care of it.”
Under the influence
The dance of masks in the book are reminiscent of other artists who’ve played with self-image, such as Cindy Sherman and Gillian Wearing. However, Collins’s main influences were books, including Jean Baudrillard’s treatise on reality and image, as well as Wim Wenders’s , which “really speaks to how subjective photography is, and how special and strange a medium it is”.
She’s been thinking again about Ryan McGinley’s approach to physicality, too. “For so long I’d only seen sexualised images of the body, but seeing the body photographed as part of a landscape was groundbreaking. Getting to go on a trip with him when I was 19, which was a time when I was really suffering, I literally had to let that go. We were just fully naked from sunrise to sunset, doing things like jumping off the top of a barn, going down river rapids, running through forests… I had never felt more in control and more love for [my body] because I was really able to use it as a tool.”
Clothes as theatre
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Collins has always loved contemplating how to clothe bodies too. During collaborations with Alessandro Michele at Gucci, she’s not only walked in his shows and appeared in campaigns, but also shot films and ads for the label. She also talks enthusiastically about “a bunch of New York designers I love like Telfar and Eckhaus Latta… all doing really weird, cool things.” Fashion has always been a shaping influence. “For me growing up… clothes were a form of play and a form of theatre.”
Do clothes play a part in her work today? “Making imagery, colour, shape and fabric have always been at the forefront. They really tell you about time, mood… they tell everything about an image. I try to bring it to a costume design realm, where it’s not just about one piece but pieces working together, and what the story’s telling.”
“I’ve been working on a feature with my writing partner Melissa Broder that should be coming to fruition soon,” says Collins of what the future holds. “Horror has been a genre that’s always been my favourite. If you want to see a little preview, Selena [Gomez] and I made this tiny short a year ago called . That was a fun prelude. The book images are similar to that.” If the previews are anything to go by, it’ll be an enjoyably hazy, creepy endeavour. She’s also got a major art exhibition coming up in Hong Kong next year. For now though, she’s appreciative of where she is. “I decided that… [the key] to move on and create more imagery, and to maybe understand my subjects even more, was to go back to myself.” And it’s a self that’s proved strange and compelling – a self seen afresh through the lens
Image credit: Courtesy of Petra Collins
Image credit: Courtesy of Petra Collins