Petra Collins is the name on most major tabloid writers’ lips right now. Is Selena Gomez still best friends with the artist Petra Collins? Is Justin Theroux dating artist Petra Collins? In one word--artist--they’ve summed up a multi-talented woman whose work in videography is helping shift the focus of the music industry. The gossip is hardly her most interesting aspect.
Petra Collins launched her photography career when she began posting her images on Rookie Magazine - a progressive and artistic website targeted at teenage girls. Since then, she’s taken off. Now, at only 25 years old, she boasts an impressive resume. Highly influential celebrities like Kim Kardashian-West and Frank Ocean have modeled for her. She’s a successful model for major couture brands. She’s published three photography books and has done advertisements for major brands such as Gucci. Perhaps most impressive is her long list of accolades - including features on Forbes “30 Under 30” in Art and Style and Vogue’s “40 Creatives to Watch” in 2016. She also recently created a mockumentary series for Lil Yachty, documenting his path to fame. However, she’s also using her photography to pioneer a new wave of the feminist movement. Multiple publications, from Vogue to The New Yorker, have credited her photography with capturing “the female gaze”, a phrase that is typically used to describe feminist films. In contrast with the traditional “male gaze” that objectifies women, the “female gaze” celebrates their sexuality and power.
Collins’ ethereal photography style is the essence of femininity, often featuring sparkles, a pink tint, or a gauzy overlay. However, the content of the picture itself does not always match the conventional definition of “feminine.” Occasionally her photos feature blood and grotesque manipulations of the human body. But more frequently, her photos focus on capturing what makes a woman feminine nowadays. As an artist who has in part risen to success through social media, Collins understands the pressure pop culture places on women. While most mainstream artists tend to display women through a sexual lens, Collins typically photographs girls in a hyper-realistic way. Many of her photographs portray women’s body hair or different body types--both sensitive issues not usually talked about in pop culture. Collins even did an exhibition for the MoMA that challenged accepted understandings of what it means to be a woman. The art focused on representation of all women-- not just those who are white and cisgender.
Her political statements seep beyond her photography. In 2013, Collins was invited to create a t-shirt for American Apparel. In an attempt to combat stigma, Collins produced a sketch of a woman masturbating while on her period. The design unsurprisingly produced strong reactions from the public, but Collins had expected this. What she didn’t expect was the backlash she received for an Instagram picture she posted in 2013. The photo featured Collins’ pubic hair peeking out from behind a small bikini and was quickly taken down by Instagram after the controversy it created. In an article Collins wrote for Oyster Magazine, later published in the Huffington Post, she explained her confusion. The picture didn’t display a nude body- it showed a bikini, not an uncommon sight for Instagram. The difference, Collins felt, was the lack of societal conformity surrounding the topic of pubic hair. These acts molded the public’s opinion of Petra Collins as someone who is passionately feminist, outspoken, and gritty. That’s why it was slightly surprising that in 2016, Collins was the one to create Carly Rae Jepsen’s music video for her song “Boy Problems”. What wasn’t surprising were the differences from typical pop music videos. Granted, the video is still fairly light and goofy, but Collins manages to slip important messages in under the viewer’s nose. Girls of all shapes and sizes tan in bikinis while women of multiple ethnicities are shown running an office. The feminism may be subtle, but it’s a welcome change.
That brings us to 2017, when Selena Gomez released her single “Fetish”. After the release she was quickly contacted by Collins who agreed to make the music video. The result was a perfect example of Collin’s unique combination of a feminine aesthetic and grotesque imagery. It’s common for music videos in the pop industry to be somewhat sexual, and with a title like “Fetish,” it’s practically a given. But Collins never does what the public expects of her, and the visual ends up resembling a horror movie more than a pop music video. Gomez wanders through a post apocalyptic suburb, eats glass, and has a mental breakdown on the kitchen floor. It’s dark, eerie, and empowering. In an interview with Dazed, Collins said horror is “one of her favorite genres to make a female look strong.”
Late in 2017, Cardi B released “Bartier Cardi.” Cardi B arguably has a more demanding presence than Carly Rae Jepsen or Selena Gomez. In fact, she’s been described as an icon of modern femininity-- clearly having found power in her sexuality. So whereas for the past two videos, Collins helped the artists tap into activism in a way they hadn’t before, she was able to merely highlight what Cardi already has. It’s a role reversal of the typical rap video in which a man is the star. Here, Cardi B and the women in the video show off their money and luxurious lifestyle. Where other videos might have scenes of half-naked dripping off the rapper’s arm, Collins has a room of men only wearing tight shorts. All in all, the video is a perfect homage to the power Cardi B conveys.
Collins’ work in the pop industry begs the question: is she taking advantage of the platform of the artists who employ her or helping them express themselves? For Selena Gomez at least, it’s definitely the latter. In an interview for Dazed, Gomez said to Collins: “For so long I felt like I (wasn’t able) to do something like this, not because I don’t want to but because I lack that confidence... I wouldn’t have been able to grow into the artist I am right now without you.” Collins undeniably has a feminist agenda, and it’s not that other artists don’t, it’s just that they might not know how to orient their art to make a change. Collins has been able to add depth and purpose to the work of these artists. Her work with these three mainstream, female artists over the past few years is surely just the start of her effort, and hopefully will spark a shift towards deep, meaningful music and music videos. Petra Collins hasn’t sacrificed an ounce of her uniqueness in entering a homogenous music industry. Instead, she’s forced it to match her unconventional style.