Inspired by Fetishes, Body Horror, Raunch, Photographer Petra Collins is Designing Her Own Clothing Collaboration and Writing a Movie
Past a buffet of vegetarian lunches and Japanese candy, beyond makeup mirrors fogged with hairspray, through shelves stacked with props (dozens of vintage 80s lamps, a copy of , and a bag of hot Cheetos) and lined with racks of pastel or neon-colored clothing, Petra Collins kneels before a custom-built wooden stage decorated with miniature furniture.
This isn’t quite the dollhouse set of a Laurie Simmons shoot or one of Tim Walker’s homages. Two models in Bratz-doll makeup and wigs have to hunch to enter the room, but only slightly, and the décor here is from a familiarly aspiration-less apartment. The clothing, too, is at once recognizable and slightly off: lacy lingerie in toxic hues, satin robes printed with anime characters, shrunken t-shirts that read, “I’m Sorry.” The models crawl along the carpeted floor, one bound shibari-style in neon green ropes. One assistant points a Venetian-blind-obscured spotlight into the room as another sprays canned air through the tiny doorway, creating a slight fog. Someone else directs a leaf blower at white curtains, that flutter against tiny window frames. Collins focuses a mini spotlight on one model’s face as the other model takes selfies with the world’s smallest iPhone on a child-scale leopard print bed. A tissue box-sized TV glows with a fuzzy image on a too-small dresser. This is the photoshoot for Collins’ first ever clothing collection, designed in collaboration with SSENSE, and named after the phrase she “says the most.” Sprinkled with references to the embarrassing memories, horror movies, and sexual fetishes that often inspire her photography, it’s at once extremely personal and humorously detached; raunchy and childish.Having, as a teen, assisted Richard Kern and modeled for Ryan McGinley, Collins (born in 1992) came of age in the school of skewed sexuality as seen by realist photography. Her own work explores the many facets of growing up behind and in front of an ever-watching lens—its realism incorporates the surreal quality of a wavering subjectivity, due to online identities. Dysmorphia and distortion, but also the grating realities of physical life, all show up in Collins’ photoshoots.Sometimes the social commentary is idyllic, like in depictions of a digital screen’s warm aura. Other times it’s macabre, as in a short film starring Selena Gomez, “A Love Story,” which shows the pop star peeling rubber appendages from her own skin. Collins’ first serious self-portraiture—her latest book, (in English: “Why be you, when you can be me?”)—used molds of her own and not her own body parts to circle the topic of drawing a line between a true and imagined self. When I meet her, she is gearing up to do some more self-portraits for this shoot, having gained some courage since the book, which came out last year.
As someone who was once extremely uncomfortable in front of a camera, it’s still a big deal for Collins to get her photo taken, even if many other image-makers now consider her a muse (see her walking a Gucci runway, guest-starring in Jill Soloway’s , or being included in countless “It Girl” stories). The exposure has both complicated and simplified the issues Collins has with her own self-image. She’s getting better at acceptance of this strange space she inhabits between respected artist and reluctant model, she tells me, but still suffers from spells of paralyzing self-doubt. (Her in-demand status doesn’t lend Collins a lot of downtime to process it all, either. Today, she’s “running on about four hours of sleep,” having just flown back from a cover shoot, and in two days, she’ll be in Milan ahead of fashion week.) “I’m gonna use these,” says Collins, scrolling through the tiny iPhone’s photos. The model who took them, Severine, who Collins has been photographing since she was fourteen, laughs, still dancing between shots. She changes from a sequined mini skirt and sheer black tights to a pair of satin underwear printed with symbols representative of Collins’ childhood: a cockroach, a stuffed dog, candy wrappers, pimple cream. These symbols are sketched by Korean artist and graphic designer Migo, who elsewhere in the collection renders Collins as a sexy Y2K-styled superhero who wears a nightgown, sneakers, and knotted rope around her wrists.Collins takes out her own phone to show me a reference image, but can’t seem to find it. “You can tell I’m a psycho by how many screenshots I send of texts,” she laughs, scrolling through the images in a conversation with her friend, the writer Melissa Broder. Broder’s essay collections use the same self-aware, seductive, yet self-deprecating language as Collins’ “I’m Sorry” world, with titles like and . It’s perhaps a go-to meme for a particular generation: the apology that precedes an intoxicating display of vulnerability.But Collins’ hyper-controlled messes—images in which exhibitionism is celebrated and shame-inducing, an addiction that requires increasing amounts of riskiness to be satisfied—both inform and respond to the aesthetic of this generation. For the teen from Toronto, photos garnering high numbers on Instagram became solo gallery shows, then fashion magazine covers, then Nordstrom and Adidas ads and music videos for millennial mouthpieces like Gomez, Lil Yachty, and Cardi B.Severine’s white t-shirt (embossed with “I’m Sorry” in a 70s porno font) appears to have had coffee spilled down the front. It’s “pre-stained,” Collins explains—“so you’re not afraid to get it dirty.” Severine pulls at the shirt as she gyrates on the ground, strappy heels locking together and then splaying apart. “I’m sorry,” she jokes, which gives Collins an idea. Holding the mini-phone to her ear, Severine theatrically whines, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Because I’m . I already said I’m sorry,” while Collins records a video. (When it’s over, the crew applauds and Severine says, “That’s literally what I sound like,” to laughter.)As the set is dismantled and a new scene is built—a full-size coffin hovering over a swirly blue rug, a pool of tears flooding from a giant eye made of dyed roses—Collins sits for hair and makeup and excitedly discusses the inspirations behind this project, the reason she’s taken a long hiatus from photography until now, and her upcoming feature film.
What does “I’m sorry” mean here?Do you mean the shoot or the clothes?Why do you want to apologize?There's a lot to unpack there. Is this something that you wanted to do for a while, designing clothes?So when you were designing these, you were probably thinking about what they would look like in photographs.Did you find this process similar to making mood boards for your photoshoots?
Because I'm from Canada, it’s like a normal thing to say. But I was also trying to find the funniest, most baby-stupid name. Fashion is really fun for me, and not totally serious. I feel like I also want to apologize for what I'm going to be putting out.Both.I have innate guilt inside of me, and shame.I've been obsessed with clothes my whole life. Clothing has been so much a part of my identity—it has either been a way of shielding myself or revealing something.Yeah, and what I would want to wear to make me most comfortable. It’s what I'd wear behind and in front of the camera: sweats, underwear, t-shirts.It was even more exciting, because it was going to be a physical piece that you can wear. I basically came up with [the graphics]: my childhood stuffed animal, Lysol spray. What else is there? I had a van growing up, a white Chrysler. This is actually a blue Dodge. It's modeled after the van that my sister has right now.
There are a lot of symbols from your childhood, but also there are these sexual symbols. How do you merge those two?Do you mean because it's a little trashy?Is the cartoon character based on you?You also became a famous photographer when you were super young, and of course now everybody's obsessed with the way you look. All this stuff must kind of fuck with your sense of self, when all you're trying to do is take a beautiful photograph. Is this cartoon kind of an extension of this idea that people have of you?Will there be some other type of manipulation going on with these self-portraits?Why?Are you commenting on a system?You would be inhuman if you didn't, since that’s the whole point of it.That everything turns to shit after a while?
I guess your sexuality comes from your childhood. Those are two things that I always relate to each other, because that's where everything that I'm obsessed with came from. It's sort of hand-in-hand for me. I'm constantly questioning my sexuality, and my sexual trauma. I think it's something that makes me the most comfortable in all of the good and bad. Which is kind of what you see when we're shooting. It's really hot, but it's also really gross.Well, it's also miniature. I really like the proportion of it. It's so jarring. Us doing the same hot, slutty shoot would not be funny in a normal size. I'm also so obsessed with anything that has humor in it. The one thing that I can't deal with is when either someone doesn't have a sense of humor, or something isn't funny, because everything is ridiculous.It’s my dream of me. My anime dream. I live in a non-reality all the time, so that was my way of actualizing it.At a young age, I had crazy, crazy body dysmorphia. I've always had so much self-hatred. My way of dealing with all that, or dealing with everything, was taking photos.I'm ultimately obsessed with the way that people see themselves through filters, and that whole wave of basically only presenting yourself with a filter on. I feel like it started with Snapchat, when people would just be saying totally normal things, but have the dog filter on. We don't even think twice about it now. I have so many screen recordings of people—it's usually Kylie—doing like, a five-minute thing where they’re talking and the dog tongue is coming out. So I’ve tried, with [makeup artist] Marcelo Gutierrez, to figure out how to make a real life filter. That's what we're doing with this. That's what I did in my book, , too. People get so angry at it.I think people either take something like this totally seriously, or it's a joke. If it’s both it’s a little unsettling.Kind of, but I'm also in it, because I do put filters on my face, and I do think some of that is attractive.Originally, when I first started photographing people taking photos of themselves, it was because I was excited. It felt like for the first time, people that weren't otherwise documented were able to have that device in their hands to create their own image. I didn't necessarily think of self-censoring. When I started seeing how they were looking at themselves, and what they were changing, and when FaceTune started, I was like, the internet isn't this perfect utopia. It has consequences. And it affects you. Because that's how I described it earlier on: an untouched landscape that we can make our own. But I forgot that—Not even after a while.
Do you think that living online has given you some of the body dysmorphia that you suffer from?How do you get out of that spiral? Do you have coping mechanisms?Can you name some body horror movies that have inspired you?What are some of the things that could make you—or someone like you—spiral?
100%. But I feel like there was a tiny sliver of time when people were trying to show an “authentic”—before it was sold—version of themselves. And as time progressed, and as these filters started being made, I've totally spiraled, and come back from it, and then gone back into spiraling. As we all do. It's fascinating, and it's also something that I've just been waiting for anyone from an educational background or community to start writing about. The internet isn't necessarily part of psychotherapy yet. My therapist barely brings it up. We don't recognize it as real.I wish. Making art is maybe the only thing. I just spent the last year-and-a-half away from photography, after I finished my books, writing with my friend Melissa Broder, who has this Twitter called @sosadtoday. I was a huge fan of hers, and I always wanted to collaborate with her in some way. I hit the point of spiraling to the most insane degree, and I was like, “Okay, let me just write about this.” That sort of morphed into our horror feature.Obviously David Cronenberg, he’s a fellow Canadian. There's also , which is the definition of going through puberty, basically a bunch of dudes freaking out around you. There's that one scene in that I'm always obsessed with, which is where Isabelle Adjani has the full breakdown. I'm also thinking of the franchise, because what we're making actually ended up being almost a full comedy.A really big part was the consumption of it all. Melissa comes from a background of being a sober person and being in recovery for so long, so she very easily interchanges all of this with drugs. It's the same thing. The more you use it, the less powerful it is. A bunch of likes two years ago would have satisfied me for a week. Now it's like, two seconds pass and I already hate myself again. I also need to change my medication, go back to therapy again. is also about mental health.
Which relates to the words, “I’m sorry.”When I saw the line, my first thought was, is this about apologizing for being sexy?Your photography also feels that way. It’s a little bit about playing into what someone wants most, but also asking, “Is this really what you wanted?”There's no way to win. The whole idea of femininity doesn't hold water anymore.What about when you’ve modeled?
So, for [I’m Sorry], it had to be really fun for me. It's something that's part of a narrative, part of the landscape, part of an image. I love fashion. I love it all. I'm not above or outside of it, either.It’s that as well.I was just describing that feeling to my boyfriend, trying to put it into words. There’s something about wearing feminine clothes and playing that feminine role. There’s half of me that feels really good about it and half of me that feels really guilty and horrible. You want that attention. Then once you get it, you feel horrible, disgusting. I’m sorry that I exist, basically.It's weird being in this body, too. I look and act very young. I'm not unaware of my sexuality or how I look. There have been so many times when people don’t understand that I’m the director of a shoot. Production crew will literally say to me, “The director needs to tell me what to do, not you,” and I’m like, “No, I am the director.” I'm very lucky to be in my position, but it's also strange, because I have to figure out a way to demand respect constantly.One of the big things that changed my way of seeing myself was when I went on Ryan McGinley's road trip. I was in a really abusive relationship. I was maybe 18 or 19 and I had lost full touch with my body. I literally couldn't see what I looked like. And I remember it was just actually so freeing to be naked and not a sexual object. I was doing every single thing that I was so afraid of doing, like, the first day. When I was doing the interview with them, they were like, “Are you afraid of heights? Are you allergic to anything?” I literally can't go outside without getting rashes, but I was like, “I'm fine, I'm good.” I was always such a fan of his, so I really wanted to go. The first thing we did was roll down a hill and climb up a tree. I’d never felt so in my body. After that, I moved to New York. I was like, “I am strong enough to leave this horrible situation that I was in and I can do stuff on my own and use my body.” I'll forever be grateful for that.
Surveys Sleeveless: Fashion, Image, Media, New York 2011–2019