Petra Collins Talks Home and Family Ahead of her New Show

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Anna and Kathleen (Rainbow), 2016Photography by Petra Collins, Courtesy of the artist

AnOther sits down with the photographer as she prepares to open a poignant new solo exhibition in her native Toronto

Petra Collins has been shooting images of family ever since she first handled a 35mm camera at the age of 15. Images of her beloved sister Anna, or the alternate family she has created with fellow artists and collaborators in the years since, are a mainstay of her hypnotically woozy work. This month, she opens her first solo show in her native Toronto for the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival. Titled Pacifier, it’s a diaristic meditation on her life, featuring by turns contemplative and radiant images of her family in Budapest and Toronto, as well as her first public artwork, a billboard picturing an intimate meeting between friends. There’s also a mural of her family home in Toronto — an especially charged space, in part because, as Collins explains, the family ended up losing it.

To say that the 24-year-old artist has been busy of late is an understatement. This year alone, she has curated an event at MoMA as part of its PopRally series, debuted a joyous video for Gucci eyewear and a campaign for Nordstrom, and even starred as Botticelli’s Venus in an Adidas Originals video. She has also been working on a new book for Rizzoli, scheduled for the autumn. “[It’s] sort of a retrospective of my work, sort of an explanation of my life and I guess the closing of a chapter and the starting of a new one,” she says. Movie-making is firmly on her mind, horror being a favourite genre. With her work situated in a tradition that includes Nan Goldin’s beatific images of friends and lovers, Tierney Gearon’s family-oriented photos, and the girlhood-focused films of Sofia Coppola, Collins has been an important voice in the conversation surrounding the female gaze. Here, she talks about her new works, Toronto haunts, and why she’s proud of her Canadian roots. 

On photographing her family…
“When I got the photos, I was sort of taken aback, I didn’t think that’s what they were going to look like. With a lot of them, you could really see how I feel about the person. My sister for me has been a maternal figure my whole life, in photos I sort of always think of her as a saint. The angle that I shoot her at is always from below, or she’s sort of always glowing, a woman. I also have a photo of my two cousins, who are so special in my life. When I went back [to Hungary] to photograph them, that was from basically not seeing them for eight years. The photo of my cousin Palko in the sunshine, that photo to me is almost haunting, the way that he’s connecting to me through the camera. I love those photos, they’re very painterly for me.”

“For me, the photos sort of feel like ghosts, they don’t really exist any place but my mind” – Petra Collins

On coming home to Toronto…
“I wanted to shoot where I grew up. I had an interesting 18 years, I guess I would say turbulent. I returned to the neighbourhood I grew up in. My family grew up in this house which we ended up losing and it’s weird, because it ended up decaying over time… So when I went back to Toronto, I really wanted to shoot in that neighbourhood that was once so comforting and then wasn’t. They’re such new images, I almost don’t really know how to describe them. For me, the photos sort of feel like ghosts, they don’t really exist any place but my mind, in the way that they’re very tight crops, they’re just, like, not real — not in the sense of something posed or created but something that is just such a marker of where my mind was at, and where everyone’s mind was at. The Hungary photos are like paintings, the Toronto photos are sort of like one moment in the time of my mind.”

On her favourite places in her hometown…
“My sister’s bed! My family is such a bed family that we all hang out in bed. But other than that, I really love Toronto Island, somewhere I went all throughout my teen years and I’ve shot a lot of things there. It’s such a special, removed place. You take the ferry and you’re in another world. There’s a little community there, there’s a beach, there’s a super old amusement park and it’s, for lack of a better word, magical — it actually is.”

“I love Carrie and The Exorcist but I also love Fat Girl [Catherine Breillat’s À ma soeur!]. [It’s] less of a horror film than a drama. It’s so, so good and so haunting” – Petra Collins

On horror films…
“I love Carrie and The Exorcist but I also love Fat Girl [Catherine Breillat’s À ma soeur!]. [It’s] less of a horror film than a drama. It’s so, so good and so haunting. It’s funny that I would call it a horror movie, because that’s not its genre. It’s one of the best coming of age stories that I’ve ever seen. The ending is key, I’m not going to give any spoilers, but it’s so real and that’s why it’s so scary.”

On growing up in Toronto...
“I was so lucky to grow up in a place that was so open and inclusive. The school that I went to was an art school, they had the biggest LGBTQ community and it was something that was just normal. And also, Toronto is an immigrant city. Every single person has a different background. I think that lends itself to the way I was able to create artworks and able to see others. I’m very proud to be Canadian. I’ve never been a nationalistic person but I feel very lucky to have grown up there.”

Petra Collins: Pacifier runs from April 29 until June 24, 2017, at CONTACT Gallery, Toronto.