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Profile: Petra Collins and imagined nostalgia

Liv Clarke identifies why Petra Collins’ hazy dreamscape photography has become so pertinent in our own female realities


You might not recognise the name Petra Collins, but you’ll probably know her face from the recent advertising campaign for the new Gucci Bloom fragrance. Though, Collins isn’t just a model or a muse, she’s an influential photographer and video artist, having created videos for fashion houses such as Bulgari, directed a music video for Selena Gomez, and her images have featured in Wonderland magazine and Teen Vogue.

Alongside these commissions she has an extensive portfolio of personal artwork exploring themes such as femininity, nostalgia and adolescence. Every photo she produces features her signature dreamy style giving her work a strong voice in a world which is saturated with Instagram images. Her recent book, Coming of Age (2017, Rizzoli) is a collection of her photographs and personal essays, revealing some of the ideas behind her work.

Collins turned to photography at 15 after injury prevented her from pursuing a career in ballet and her relationship with her body has been an idea continually explored in her work. She began by photographing her younger sister Anna and her friends, capturing teenage girls in their bedrooms as they struggle with what the outside world throws at them and what the inside world of their body presents them.

Her next project was capturing life in high school, with her sister continuing to be the muse, posing in baseball jackets and knee-high socks. In Coming of Age Collins describes how she used photography to escape her reality and capture a version of adolescence she missed out on “I shot my sister at high school dances, in the library being bored, or at a basement party with our friends – situations I was rarely in.”

There’s a certain irony in the fact that its not only the viewer who feels left out of these ‘All-American’ experiences but the photographer does too — emphasising the sad nostalgia in these images.

There’s a longing for something which never happened and never will, and it reflects how the teenage experience is filled with moments of disappointment and sadness. The idea of nostalgia is enhanced by the hazy style of her images; they look almost amateur, but that’s no bad thing. In a time of super-airbrushed, HD photos Collins’ style is refreshing and unique today.

Moving away from the teenage bedroom her latest work continues to hark back to a different era, this time taking inspiration from the 70’s with brightly coloured disco lighting rather than a 90s softly lit haze.

Collins, who is Canadian, ventured to Hungary and photographed her mother’s family for Gucci’s Spring/Summer 2017 eyewear collection. The resulting images are saturated with colour and almost verge on Kitsch, but the deliberate poses of her subjects ground them in the present day. Her accompanying words perhaps reveal why nostalgia is a recurring theme in her work, “Budapest: the place that has stayed constant in my life. It’s a city with a rough history, which has caused it not to change…When I was younger, visiting felt like travelling back in time.”

But if Collins’ images are so imbedded in the past, why is she relevant today? One word: feminism. Firstly, she’s a female artist photographing women and this female gaze affects how the viewer sees these women; they are not reduced to just a sexual object.

She captures aspects of the female form and bodies in general which you don’t see elsewhere such as bruises, braces and pubic hairs (Collins’ own Instagram account was recently deleted after she posted a photo of herself with an unshaven bikini line). Furthermore, she’s supported women throughout her career so far.

In 2010 she founded The Ardorous, an online art collective for female artists; since 2011 she’s worked closely with Tavi Gevinson, editor of Rookie an online magazine for teenage girls; and in 2015 she curated the book Babe, which featured the work of The Ardorous artists.

However, for Collins the pressure felt by women to look a certain way is still very present, and she highlights the fact that her bikini photo was one out of “5,883,628…images at the time to be tagged with bikini” which wasn’t deemed appropriate. That’s a lot of women conforming to beauty ideals. Collins’ photographs are aesthetically perfect; however, she captures the imperfections around her which is what makes her work so captivating.