Upon picking up a 35mm camera at the age of 15, Toronto-born Petra Collins rapidly developed her signature style of photographs depicting the complex world of teenage girls. She captured her sister Anna—a recurring muse for the artist—and their friends as they navigated their sexuality, femininity, friendships, and social media. Since then Collins has gone on to shoot major campaigns for couture brands, editorials for eminent publications, and has produced and exhibited work internationally for museums and galleries. Today, at 24, the New York-based artist continues to successfully create work that straddles the worlds of art and fashion.
Collins’ first solo exhibition in Canada is a homecoming of sorts, one that reveals the artist’s intimate turn inward, focusing on her family in Toronto and Budapest, Hungary, throughout 2016. At the entrance to the CONTACT Gallery is a large photographic mural of Collins’ sister Anna and a friend on a Toronto street. Wearing sweatshirts and flannel pants, and donning messy hair, the girls seem as though in a dream, sleepwalking during a pastel-coloured sunrise, attempting to make their way home. This image leads viewers into the private realm of Collins’ family life, as photographs taken around the artist’s childhood home and current family residence reveal tender moments during a turbulent time. The most intimate of these are the closely cropped photographs of her father’s body; cascades of light delicately touching his surgical scar, his neck, and his hand in hers, adding texture to the quiet, ephemeral scenes. In Anna and Kathleen (rainbow) (2016), Collins’ sister lies on a bed with a friend during a moment of respite, as rainbow colours sneak across their foreheads. In Anna Tear (2016), an emotive, close-up image of her sister’s tearful face, Collins’ employs a black background with bold red and purple streaks of light. The image is part of her series 24 Hour Psycho—exploring the artist’s personal relationship with mental illness—which also extends to a new work commissioned for a large mural outside of the CONTACT Gallery, and is a portrait revealing a moment of compassion between friends. The adjacency of these photographs to those of Collins’ father points to the emotional tenor of her family’s affairs.
Placed in the gallery alongside her Toronto photographs are images marking Collins’ recent return to her maternal roots in Budapest, where she has captured her family in tightly cropped portraits. In Nagymama and Lace (2016), her grandmother’s partially shadowed face is depicted against a curtain, while in Anna and Anyu (Hungary) (2016), her sister and mother, dressed in floral patterns, are caught in a tight embrace against a bright blue sky. Collins’ portrait of her young cousin, Little Prince (Palko) (2016), takes centre stage as he gazes directly at the camera, saint-like, while a radiant sunset dips down below the Hungarian hills behind him. Fusing her reverence for both art and fashion, Collins styled her family in a combination of Gucci and their own clothes, reflecting the fluidity of her approach.
Collins’ work is diaristic in nature, forming a visual repository that chronicles her personal experiences, from meticulously crafted portrayals of beauty to candid depictions of her aging family. The artist’s desire to reflect back is perhaps most literally conveyed by a massive mural of her childhood home, enlarged from an old family photograph. The nostalgic image recalls her beginnings in a Toronto suburb—where she first explored photography’s expressive potential—and represents the backdrop for a narrative that continues to evolve.