From her personal Instagram to Gucci campaigns, photographer Petra Collins creates dream worlds that inspire a young female audience. As she prepares to launch her first solo exhibition in Toronto, her hometown, Odessa Paloma Parker asks the image-maker about harnessing controversy and the power of the selfie
"I would like me and a group of women to replace the five men that shoot every [fashion] campaign," says Petra Collins, the Toronto-born, Brooklyn-based artist and curator whose Pacifier series is a primary exhibition at this year's Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival in Toronto. Collins' aspiration may seem lofty to anyone unfamiliar with her career's meteoric success, but considering what she's accomplished by the age of 24 – collaborations with Gucci; directing a music video for pop phenom Carly Rae Jepsen; photographing Kim Kardashian West for the cover of Wonderland magazine; and shooting the spring 2017 campaign for Nordstrom – domination of the creative world doesn't seem like a far-fetched notion.
"It's a very exciting time in her career," says Darcy Killeen, Contact's executive director. "And it's a tremendous opportunity for us." Indeed, Collins' rise is on an unprecedented trajectory that far exceeds her humble beginnings in North York. Developing her artistic chops in Toronto, Collins – a former OCAD University student – moved to New York in 2013 and quickly garnered attention for a show she curated of all-female artists called Gynolandscape. The most notorious outcome of the show was a collaboration with the retailer American Apparel; one T-shirt featured an illustration by Alice Lancaster of a woman's menstruating vagina while she masturbates. It became international news for its explicit depiction of two topics some still consider taboo. The same year, Collins' personal Instagram account – at the time boasting over 25,000 followers – was suspended after she posted a photo of her unshaved bikini line. The incident sparked discussion about the female gaze, social media and empowerment, all ideas Collins has explored in her work.
Her new solo exhibition – the first in Canada and one she describes as her "most intimate show ever" – opens on April 29, and hinges on another subject she's often explored, her family. Ethereal, tender and unfiltered, the images highlight Collins' brood in settings within Toronto and her mother's native Budapest. "The imagery is a little different than my normal photos," says Collins. "They're very real, but they're also so intimate and personal to me – they're the direct projections of how I feel about those people."
Collins' signature photography style is notable for its lighting – occasionally moody, other times celestial – and the intimate feeling that resonates between the subject and the audience. It's an aesthetic she's honed since she started to take photos in high school, and Collins recalls attending Contact as a student, noting how integral the festival and having access to such art exhibitions through the school system was to her creative development. "I don't know what I would've done without it. I really struggled in school with reading and writing," she says. "Art was my refuge – my way of speaking, of dealing with my own issues and connecting with the world."
In 2010, Collins launched The Ardorous, an art collective platform presenting works like The Hairless Norm, her self-portrait series featuring her midsection and exposed pubic hair, shot in a kaleidoscopic style. "I started it because I didn't see a place for myself and my peers," she says. "I didn't see spaces where female artists could exist and exhibit their work. So I created a platform for this – one that allowed our works to be seen, but to also weave a community of women that could lean on and work with one another."
Another Collins-created series on the site, Teen Angel, features Tavi Gevinson, the founder of Rookie magazine. Collins' work was featured often in the publication, which focused on female empowerment through a millennial lens. This notion is something Collins is deeply interested in, manifesting itself in projects like her Selfie series. "The selfie is revolutionary to me," she says. "It is, I think, the only point in history where masses of young girls and women have been able to control, create and publish images of themselves. The selfie is a powerful tool but it can also be dangerous, and I am fascinated with the process of it because there is a level of self-monitoring."
Collins' ability to explore such ideas has garnered the attention of big names in the fashion industry. "As a woman – and as a young woman – Petra has a strong voice and such a captivating way of articulating what she believes in," says Olivia Kim, vice president of creative projects at Nordstrom. "There is a modernity in her voice that women – or really people in general, young or old across all ages and all ethnicities – can resonate with. She has strong opinions but is completely authentic." The retailer's new campaign, shot by Collins, features a variety of people from filmmaker Adinah Dancyger to artist Lumia Nocito. "We worked with Petra to help cast it," says Kim. "It was an incredible group of people who helped depict the story we hoped to tell."
Storytelling is fundamental to the appeal of Collins' work – each dreamy, off-camera glance or smile aims to reveal something the viewer is curious to learn. It's also a quality she identifies in the appeal of Gucci's recent collections designed by Alessandro Michele. "They're not putting anyone in any type of box," she says, noting the fanciful aesthetic of Michele's clothing is able to be interpreted outside the sexy-edgy-conceptual paradigm that exist within the fashion world. The eccentric and multi-referential garb has become a favourite of the fashion world, and Collins has in turn become a favourite of Michele. Not only has she photographed the Italian brand's recent eyewear ads, but she walked in the fall 2016 runway show and modelled in the collection's campaign. "They're very big supporters of artists and of creating things, and not necessarily selling things," she notes.
A key element to Collins' success has been in cultivating these kinds of supportive relationships, which take her around the world. "I've spoken to Petra 10 times in the last month, and she's been on a different continent every time," says Contact's Killeen. "She really is out there, doing everything she can." Yet as far-reaching as her career has become, her exhibition debut in her hometown resonates deeply for the young artist. "It's the place that I started taking photos, and where I really discovered art and where I discovered my voice," she says. "It's so surreal."