Q&A: Petra Collins, the Toronto-raised Instagram star who’s shot Kim Kardashian and Selena Gomez
At 24 years old, Petra Collins has photographed the world’s top celebs, shot massive campaigns for Nordstrom and Gucci (as well as walked the label’s runway) and acted in shows like Transparent. The Toronto-bred artist’s half-million Instagram followers are equally devoted to her dreamy, whimsical aesthetic and her tendency to push boundaries with images of pubic hair and pimples. We caught up with Collins before the launch of her family-focused exhibition, Pacifier, on display now as part of the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival.
How does it feel to have your first solo exhibition in your hometown?
It’s the craziest, best feeling ever. Contact is something I grew up attending as a student, and it’s wild to headline it.
Your work got a lot of attention on Instagram while you were studying at OCAD. Tell me about your decision to pack up and move to New York.
I moved to New York pretty young, when I was 20. My family was supportive of the decision. I love Toronto, but New York gave me more opportunities. I left with a suitcase filled with my negatives and somehow figured it out.
You ended up rooming with Tavi Gevinson in an apartment in the Lower East Side. How’d that happen?
She and I met when I shot the first editorial for Rookie magazine. We clicked right away. She’s the words to my imagery. We ended up becoming best friends, and when she was doing her first play in New York, This Is Our Youth, they gave her an apartment and she asked me to move in with her. Both of us were so busy that we never really saw each other, weirdly.
You’re no stranger to controversy. Instagram removed some of your photos because they showed pubic hair, and then there was that “Period Power” tee you made with American Apparel. Did the reactions surprise you?
They did and they didn’t. It’s always a good thing to create something that encourages conversation, even if it’s negative, because then people will think about it. I’m never seeking the controversy, though. I create artwork that I want to make. I don’t expect people to be shocked or upset by it.
You’ve shot some serious superstars, including Selena Gomez, Brit Marling and Sky Ferreira. What was it like to photograph Kim Kardashian for the cover of Wonderland?
It was super fun. I always make sure I understand my subjects and get really intimate with them. It was cool to shoot something so personal with someone so public. She was really easy to get along with and super sweet. She was also down for anything, which I really appreciated. It’s hard for celebrities to let go and let an artist take over, but that’s what I’ve got to do.
Who was your favourite celeb to shoot?
Probably Selena. We get along really well. She’s so smart and creative. We’re the same age, actually, and are very similar.
Your upcoming show is big a change from the celebrity shoots: it’s focused on intimate portraits of your family. Did you approach the project differently?
When I was in Hungary for the photo series I shifted my lens to my family. It almost happened by accident. I’ve always shot my sister and her friends, but it’s never been so much about me. When I got the images back, I was shocked: they were so personal—and so my reflection of the people that I love—that I was taken aback. The images almost came from my mind; they’re faint and ghostly and not like my normal imagery. It’s probably because I have such a history with each subject, and because I feel a different way about each person. All of that came out.
Tell me about Little Prince. Who is he?
He’s my first cousin—the son of my mom’s sister, whose name is also Petra. I hadn’t been back to Hungary or seen him for eight years, so it was a crazy experience to get such an intimate moment. I didn’t have to pose him or do anything. He did it all himself. The way that he’s looking into my lens is so haunting and so beautiful; it’s probably one of my favourite photos I’ve ever taken. He looks like a biblical character. This was part of a series for Gucci called Blind For Love. The only direction they gave me was the title, and I just went for it.
Trust falls are such an iconic childhood activity. Tell me about this photo.
It’s my sister Anna and her best friend Jaqueline, who is falling onto her. I did two series for this show, one in Hungary and one in Toronto. We were revisiting all my childhood spots in my old neighbourhood in North York, and they just did the fall.
Your sister Anna appears in a lot of your photos, like this one, Anna Tear. Why is she such a favourite subject?
Anna has been a maternal figure to me. In most of my photos of her, I shoot her from below, as if she’s a saint. They’re very ethereal and otherworldly. They always end up coming out that way because of how I feel about her.
What’s next for you?
I come from such a film background, and I’ve always loved movies. Eventually, I’d love to direct a feature film.