Petra Collins, Baron (Miért vagy te, ha lehetsz én is?)

JTF (just the facts): Published by Baron in 2019 (here). Hardcover, 166 pages, with about 100 color and black and white photographs. There are no texts or essays included. In an edition of 2000 copies. Designed by Sandra Leko. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The New York-based, Canadian artist Petra Collins has consistently documented her experiences growing up using online platforms like Tumblr and Instagram. Her early photographs were a distinctively dreamy documentation of female adolescence, sexuality, and contemporary femininity. In her final year of high school, she created an online collective called the The Ardorous, featuring her photographs and the work of other like-minded young female artists. The platform became known for showing the culture of teenage girls, giving them voice and unfiltered representation, and exposing the unsexy parts of young womanhood. Collins, now twenty-six, is now often recognized for her fashion photographs, but her practice goes far beyond that. In the past decade, she has curated exhibitions, collaborated with Gucci, directed music videos for rapper Cardi B and Selena Gomez, released a short film series, and produced a number of photobooks. 

Collins’ new photobook was commissioned by the cult erotic magazine Baron and is titled Miért vagy te, ha lehetsz én is? The Hungarian phrase translates as “Why be you, when you can be me?”, and is borrowed from a 1998 Canadian TV commercial “Boutique” about two girls who enter a surreal makeup store where a woman continuously says the phrase through a screen. Collins’ choice of Hungarian is a nod to her mother, who emigrated to Canada from Hungary in the 1980s.

In this new project, Collins turns the camera on herself, in a provocative and sometimes strange experiment in self-portraiture. She began by collaborating with Sarah Sitkin, an artist who creates hyper-realistic molds of the human body, and Sitkin made a silicone cast of Collins’ body (including her face), carefully recreating all its tiny details. Collins then used her new skin to examine her relationship with her own image, saying that “I was finally able to see myself as a physical thing.” In a sense stepping out of her own body, she invited her sister and friends to wear the molds, thereby creating multiple copies of herself, recalling Jean Baudrillard’s idea of simulacra; this multiplication of identities is also a physical reflection of our shifting world online. The project was shot in a period of one year, both in Toronto, around places where Collins grew up, and on set, where she staged scenes in a replicated childhood bedroom.

The photobook was designed by Sandra Leko, who found inspiration in Japanese kinbaku magazines and film posters from the 80s and 90s. It uses bright colors, inset images, and bold typography to create a layout that feels busy and energetic. The main photograph on the cover depicts two young women in white underwear: one stands while the other one is on her knees – they embrace with a hula hoop on fire behind them, like a frozen moment of power dynamics from some opaque ritual or horror flick (another variant of this image found inside features a third woman holding a chainsaw.) A few smaller photographs with colored borders are also scattered on the cover, like allusions to parallel stories. The design sets the atmosphere for the eerie and sometimes bizarre visual flow that follows. 

Dolls, mannequins, and masks have been used by countless photographers to interrogate the nuances of psychologies and relationships, and Gillian Wearing, Aneta Grzeszykowska, and others have employed lifelike latex casts to make these kinds of interactions or personifications even more intimate. Where Collins differs is that she is using casts of herself to unpack her own childhood memories and sexual fantasies; she’s turned the examination and role-playing inward, probing the depths her own identity rather than that of others.

The book’s flow interweaves setups in the childhood bedroom, school bathroom, and classrooms, images of bride and dancer personas (alternately in white veil and leotards), fetish-style photographs of rope bondage scenes, and pictures of isolated body parts (in snow banks, on desks, submerged under water), avoiding any kind of linear story line and making it even harder to figure out what really is going on. Many of these settings go back to Collins’ own fantasies, desires, and memories as a teenager, or extend those original ideas in more extreme directions. The photos also resonate with our online existence, as we constantly edit and modify ourselves using selfie filters. 

In the photographs, she continuously explores her relationship with her body, the doubling effect of others wearing masks that resemble her providing opportunities to reconfigure herself. Collins wanted to be a dancer, but an injury prevented her from pursuing that career. A girl in a pointe shoes dancing in a school gym, and various others posing in a bathroom and elsewhere connect back to those dreams. In one shot, a girl in a turquoise bodysuit does a bridge stand on a bathroom floor, but the mask on her face is turned around, creating a portrait that is both bizarre and beautiful. Other images place the empty face mask on her rear end, between her legs, or doubled over other faces, disrupting our sense of normalcy and forcing us to look at her face not her body. 

While the flimsy face masks provide a creepy, uninhabited, or absent feeling, the actual molds that were used to make the skins have also been used by Collins, the disembodied parts staged as incomplete versions of herself or perhaps the leavings of a serial killer. Often buried in snow, these body parts feel disconnected, somehow part of who Collins is, but also partially removed from that identity. In essence, she’s breaking down her body, searching for resonances that come from a pair of feet or a hand, continually testing us with questions of what is real.

Collins’ photographs are also often overtly erotic – young women pose in their underwear, tie each other up in bondage ropes, and playfully take control of their fantasies. But placed in the environment of a childhood bedroom, along with the masked faces and body parts, the images smartly bring together childhood desires and nightmares. All of the models feel in control – the power and agency always resides with them – and the images are provocative but never explicit; the result is a mood of managed danger, where potentially shocking emotions and feelings lie just beneath the surface. The last photograph is a full spread: a table with a pile of CDs, a book, strawberry waffles, tulips in a vase, molds of feet and torso, and a mirror with a blurry reflection of girl on a bed scrolling through her phone. The photograph feels like an aggregate metaphor to our life today, one woman made up of many possible versions of herself.

Miért vagy te, ha lehetsz én is? is an important example of how photography is involved in the ongoing contemporary conversation surrounding women’s representation. The photobook uses Collins’ reflections on her childhood memories and experiences as the raw material for a deeper artistic investigation, one that will resonate with a lot of young women, even those who might be uncomfortable with its Lolita-like aesthetic. Her practice of showing young women in the space between public and private hits just the right note, using exaggerated fantasy to tap into both anxieties and desires that feel surprisingly real.

Collector’s POV: Petra Collins does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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