Petra Collins On Coming Of Age & The Female Gaze

Photo: Petra Collins © "Petra Collins: Coming of Age."

Looking at a Petra Collins photograph feels like standing in front of an oven on a hot summer day: the heat a reflection of those emotions that swirl inside us in our early adolescence; of horror and confusion of a budding sexuality, of finding our place in the world. One of the reasons her work — which often features young women illuminated by bright beams of color that make them seem both otherworldly and swathed in city lights, ready to live — resonates the way it does is because Collins was a teen herself when she began taking pictures. She was not looking back, thinking about a life she had once lived. She was not fueled by nostalgia or by redefining early experiences. Instead, she possessed a desire to simply capture the things around her, exactly as they were.

In the years since she first picked up a camera to have “something to do” following a dance injury, she’s become one of the most influential and recognizable artists of her generation. Her work has since extended beyond photography, curating performances at MoMA, directing music videos for artists like Carly Rae Jepsen, Lil Yachty, and Selena Gomez, and creating campaigns for Gucci, for which she’s also modeled.

Now, she’s released Coming Of Age, a book that collects some of earliest work and pairs it with autobiographical essays by Collins; it also features an essay by the artist Laurie Simmons, and a conversation between her and the artist Marilyn Minter, which squarely places Collins not only inside the feminist artist lineage, but inside the capital-A Artist pantheon. Her success is not a fluke; the seriousness of her work goes beyond the pastel colors that have now taken over social media. She is a force to be reckoned with.

“I kind of couldn't figure out what I wanted to do with the book,” Collins tells Refinery29. “Originally I wanted to do a book of all new work, but I realized that I had never published my past in a tangible way. I really wanted a space to tell my story, and I thought it was an important way to not only close the chapter on my teenage life, but to also give context and background to my life, and why I take the photos I take, and I do the work that I do.”

Photo: Petra Collins © "Petra Collins: Coming of Age."

Born in Ontario, Canada, to Hungarian parents, Collins struggled with mental health issues early on in her life; in the first part of the book, she explores these feelings in an essay paired with childhood images of her whole family. It is unflinchingly honest in its portrayal, and sets an intimate tone that develops throughout the rest of the book. And it’s that same sense of intimacy that you feel when looking at her work. Her photographs are beautiful, but the sense of melancholy that oftentimes accompanies them corresponds to the real-life emotions Collins felt while taking them.

“My family photos were a big thing that I didn’t think would end up being in the book, but I ended up realizing a lot about myself throughout those images,” Collins remembers. “I think the most interesting thing [about putting the book together] was seeing the progression of my thoughts, how I felt about myself, and how I felt about women.” She adds, “My photos started kind of very violent and dark because I was sort of confused as a young woman with how to take images of other women that wouldn’t exploit them.”

Her interest in seeing a more accurate representation of herself and the young women was — and still is — one of the original driving forces behind her work. Early on, she had seen a portfolio of images by the artist Ryan McGinley in an issue of Vice and was taken aback at how he was able to capture naked bodies in a non-sexualized way. His influence became even more concrete, after she modeled for one of his portfolios.

“The trip was so pivotal for me because it was a point where I was so self-conscious and reckless with my body,” she recalls, “I hated being looked at, I hated not being looked at, and then having to go on this trip where I was fully naked but not sexualized, and I was taking part in creating these photos that I loved.” She adds, “It sort of jump-started me, [made me] realize that I didn't need to be trapped in anything I didn't want to be trapped in, and I actually ended up moving to New York after that. I really saw [what] creating art and what photography could do, especially to the subject.”

Photo: Petra Collins © "Petra Collins: Coming of Age."

Feeling these things encouraged Collins to continue moving forward with her new-found obsession. She founded The Ardorous, a collective of female photographers and artists because she was “sick of the way” she was treated as a photographer. “I wanted to create a community because I was already connecting and looking at all these women’s work.” She thinks back to her teenage years: “I had to to go to an alternative school because I failed my last year of high school, and I had this teacher, Pamela, who was very open to me doing my own work in class, and she really pushed me to do it, which was so cool. Having that positive female [influence] in my life was really important in just telling me that I could do it.”

Collins rose to fame at the same time as feminism went mainstream, and conversations about the male gaze — and the development of a so-called female gaze — entered our everyday conversations. When thinking about the artists that have become part of this aesthetic, it’s not difficult to see Collins’ influence in their work. In fact, it’s hard to imagine it all happening, without much of her early work, published in Tavi Gevinson’s Rookie magazine, laying the groundwork. Collins, however, doesn’t necessarily see this evolution as a positive thing.

“I’m so cautious of being boxed into that one area. Obviously it’s important to have different perspectives in photography but I don't think that necessarily means [you have to] create a whole genre?,” she says, and you can tell this is a topic she feels strongly about. “I just don't like how the female gaze is so gendered and it’s just put on. Like, I see so many articles out there that are like female gaze photographer, and I'm like, no, I'm an artist and I take photos, and just because I'm a woman doesn't mean I have to be labeled that way.”

Photo: Petra Collins © "Petra Collins: Coming of Age."
Photo: Petra Collins © "Petra Collins: Coming of Age."

It’s an effect of the commercialization of feminism that’s so pervasive in so many aspects of our culture, and one that she’s keenly aware of how it works and how she fits into the whole puzzle. “Personally, I think it’s more important to change the landscape and create something new that’s inclusive. Like if I get hired for a job then [the focus is on] a female photographer, or when I'm shooting a campaign they'll label it as something that isn't a campaign like they want to use my name or they say like a story by instead of oh I just shot a campaign.” Collins is not here for your bullshit marketing ploy, basically.

She’s been lucky so far that even her most commercial projects have still remained deeply personal. Her work with Gucci specifically, for which she has traveled to Budapest to photograph her cousins and grandmother, stands out as some of the most magnificent campaigns in recent years. “I never expected [the images] to come out the way that they did, and it was because of the intense backstory between all of us.” She recalls of the recent shoot, “[The way] they look at the camera, and look at me, and look at the viewer is so heartbreaking. They ended up looking so saintly and that’s something that I could've never planned for. They are so comfortable with the camera and they put so much of their emotions into it, it’s just so beautiful.”

Photo: Courtesy of Rizzoli © "Petra Collins: Coming of Age."

In the end it is love — her love for shooting and her love for her family and her love for creating more inclusive spaces — that has truly kept her going throughout all the years. She thinks back to when she first started shooting, “I never was like oh, I'm good, I'm great! it was more [about] exploring how I could do it more and more. I was really doing it because I loved it, and I guess I just assumed that I [was] doing something good but I wasn’t like oh my god, my photos are amazing!” But they are.

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