The imagination of Petra F. Collins
23 • 01 • 15Zita Sárvári
Many Hungarian photographers have had a significant influence on modern photography and have gained worldwide fame as outstanding pioneers of this artistic medium. The names of Brassaï, Capa, Kertész, Moholy-Nagy and Munkácsi have made their mark on the history of photography through their unique vision. In our newly launched interview series, we present successful contemporary Hungarian or Hungarian-born photographers who followed in the footsteps of the Hungarian pioneers of 20th century photography. Our aim is to enrich the quality and value of Hungarian photography by interviewing artists who are mainly active abroad but less or hardly known in Hungary, and to prove that world-famous Hungarian photography did not end with the classics, but only began with them.
What lies behind the deeply intimate and private images of this young Canadian-Hungarian photographer? With over one million followers on Instagram, Petra F. Collins is one of the most influential young photographers of our time. An artist and model in one, a kind of Warholian character. The main subject of her images is adolescence, with its idealized beauty and naivety, and the different realities of femininity. She shoots her emotional, dreamlike photographs on film, imbued with a dark sadness.
She grew up in Toronto, the eldest child of a Canadian father and a Hungarian mother. In 2013, she moved to New York, conquering the city, and redefining the concept of "young artist", before moving to Los Angeles to create the defining aesthetic of the Euphoria series with Sam Levinson.
The impact of her art on contemporary visual culture is unquestionable. Her images are an imprint of the urban folklore used by youth cultures, a complex investigation of a generation that knows the world and its people almost exclusively through the screen. Petra Collins, who has been visiting Hungary almost every year lately and has made several important shootings here, is being interviewed for the first time in Hungary.
The Hungarian language appears in the title of several of your photos. What do your Hungarian roots mean to you?
My whole family is in Hungary. My uncle and my grandmother who are really parents to me live there. They have a house at Köveshegy, but they live by the Farkasréti Cemetery. I don’t really have a place to feel at home, so the only place that feels like home is actually in Hungary because it was my first language and literally my home is there. I’d like to rent an apartment to Hungary, I’d love it so much, I have such a great time. I have such a love for the city and the people.
What do you do when you are in Hungary? Do you integrate into the art scene or are you more with your family?
It’s funny because I really only knew it as a child. So I kind of like didn’t know anything about anything like adults. But this time, two of my cousins just turned 18, so I kind of got to like see what it’s like for young people. Cause I just like to stay with my family, not stay with them. I am also not the kind who goes out generally, I don t do that, but I sort of just got a taste of like the younger generation this time. And it felt so good. It was nice to see how the younger generation, also politically feel about the country and everything, how they are so much different, so this time I had such a great time. I was able to experience it as an adult more. The young people touched my heart. I was really curious to see what the youth are, and it was cool to see how the young people cared to do things. That was surprising to me.
You are inspired by contemporary culture and phenomenons attached to your main characters, your own generation, the millennials. Gazing, emoting (tears), masking (light of the phone screen which illuminates the face), texting, and selfies were the main motives that appeared in your work of art. And you have had a major impact on contemporary culture - not to mention the series Euphoria, which is very much inspired by your aesthetic in my shy opinion. Do you see these similarities? Or is it just a zeitgeist?
I tell you the truth about that series what never was told. I never talked about this publicly, because it is such a crazy thing, but basically, the reason I moved to Los Angeles was because Sam Levinson, who directed the show. He reached out my agency and told “I wrote a show based on your photos. Will you direct it?”. So I moved to LA, and work for HBO for about 5 months. I was like “I am directing the show”. I created a whole world for it, I did the casting, whatever and the last minute HBO was like “We are not hiring you, because you are too young”. And that was like “fine, okay, thank you so much” They won’t take my version of the show obviously - I was so naiv - , they’ll just do another one. So it was fine, I learned a lot, it was interesting… And a year later I walked out of my apartment, and see this billboard and it’s exactly what I am, as a copy of my work. I started crying, I was so shocked. I mean it happens to me so many times in my career, but not on a scale like that. It was so intense to me, because this is the aesthetic that I built all my life, and now I have to change it, ‘cause it enters the mainstream and it’s been taken away from me. The worst thing was when people were unknowingly saying this show looks like your photos.
Anyone who knows and follows contemporary photography knows that Petra Collins was ahead of the show. Your defining visual aesthetic was established very early on. You have been taking photographs since you were 15. Your first major publication was in Rookie magazine (an online magazine about teenagers by teenagers, founded in 2011 - ed.). How did you start taking photos?
Art was to me the way of communicating, and surviving because I did have a very difficult childhood. It was my safe place. It was a way I know how to communicate and play with. The play was the most important thing I learned in my creative process. Whenever I was playing as a child, I made a play, a little film. I wanted to end up in ballet, but I had to stop at 14 because I had to get knee surgery. I thought that was my medium. But at 15 photography started to be part of my body and my mind, and it moves with me as I age or as I learn.
I think it is important not to go to school for a medium because you need to strengthen everything else. I knew I don’t need to learn necessarily any technical, but I needed to expand my mind and learn studies so I could bring into that photo. That’s the way it’s developed. I have learned every stage of my life I’m interested in. And looking back on my life is important to realize the actual context and motions behind all those photos. One of my biggest epiphany of mine was that such a major body of my work is teenagehood and I remembered later I never lived a real teenage life.
Your images can highlight the emotions that distinguish the special period of teenage life and the inevitable transition to adulthood. Should we imagine your childhood as it appears in your pictures?
It was very much like that, but I think when It comes to me from those photos when I'm looking at it, there is like a darkness to it, there is like the heaviness of what our actual life was. What I love those images about is the idealized teen-hood, but there is a darkness in them. I don’t know if I noticed in that age. They are visually also pretty dark. Simultaneously I was living that sort of teenage life, but carrying a lot of really heavy things. It is always interesting to me to see those photos what I was projecting and then what was really in those images. It is never possible to create anything objective because everything is subjective, but a documentary. The artists also play a major part in documentarian photos.
Your photographs challenge figures of femininity, images of female bodies, and expressions of girls’ sensuality hidden in their personal spaces, in their rooms from the very beginning. The pictures blend sexuality with the innocence associated with early girlhood. Seems an inexhaustible topic for you. What would you say about how these topics developed during all these years of practice? How has your style and vision changed through these years?
I think this is interesting because it started so young. You can see the progression. Grappling with your sexuality, and growing into women. The topic I was always interested in is sexuality, but it is changing as I grow and age. I started with a naturalistic style because that was me at that time, the real and truth-telling was of show images. And as I grew I changed my perspective on reality, so at one period I moved into strong lightning and dark colors, and moved into a more surreal work. For me at that time, or even now, I found that more real than trying to like “document” anything, because of the shift that happened on the Internet and how we perceive ourselves. After 2014 we made a switch to be half of our lives online. You are an avatar most of the day. If you try to capture what it is like to be human, it is a misstep not to bring in the surreal. We live part of us online, we present ourselves in a fully different way, as a whole different character. So my work is a step back into the surreal, but to me, it is the most real. That’s how my work developed. I like to add assorted building sets or use prosthetics because it feels like real life, as people edit photos, use filters, and present false realities.
A Miért vagy te, ha lehetsz én is? series is already like an experimental film in itself, evoking the aesthetics of 70s magazines. You use the camera as a third person, and perhaps in this series, you break completely from the aesthetics of your earlier work and enter into that mentioned surreal.
That series was an exorcism to me. I had to change my style because of Euphoria. Lots of people started to take photos in that style and I haven’t felt any more as mine and I felt disconnected from that. I need to find myself again, cause I didn’t resonate with this anymore. That was a big turning point in my life. That body of work I liked so much, because I felt so disconnected from my body, from my work. I was like how do I get myself back to my body? I don’t do self-portraits, I physically need to hold the camera, because lots of my work come is in camera. I also felt violent towards myself, and my body, and I needed to create another version, and it was really therapeutic and exciting to place myself anywhere, photograph myself from any angle. That series was a starting point to create a newer style of photography for me.
Your most recent photo book is Fairy Tales, an erotic folklore book of short stories told in pictures starring Alexa Demie. You co-created the concept and text, in which Alexa plays nine fantasy characters. As children, you were both fascinated by fairy tales that offered an escape from your own painful realities. What are those themes that could end up in a photo book?
All my big works end up like this. I need special things like books. Naturally, that is the way I want to present it. Alexa Damie and I were only planning to do one shoot. I had posted a picture of Liv Tyler from Lord of the Rings and Alexa replied that she would like to be like that one day, and I asked her if we should try it. The photoshoot went so well, it worked so naturally, and we both loved the result, that we agreed to make more characters. By the time it was put together into a series, we were craving the book format. The series was based on the folk tales and cartoons I watched as a child, but I wanted to create my own character and enter another world through that.
What are those terms, symbols, metaphors, and personalities you refer to nowadays with your photographs?
My biggest interests are the perception of reality and life online, and how people control their visual narrative, and their image. It is crazy how people deal with that and work with that. I am also fascinated by modern folklore.
What are your long-term plans and goals for photography or filmmaking?
I am at a point where I need to express my self in film, not that I want to pause taking photos at all, but I am at a point where I need to make a moving image. Now I am working simultaneously on three films, and film making I want to make the rest of my life. One thing that I'm learning about film is it's the slowest process and it is something that I had to sit down and learn. Photo and fashion and art can be really fast. Now I’m learning patience also.
Z.S.: Tell us your 10 favorite things about Hungary!
P.C.: There is so much that I love. It is a really hard question.
- Smell of the older apartments where my grandma lives. She lives in Pest. There is a specific smell. To me is one of the coziest best thing.
- I love the Marcipán Museum. I love preserving personal history. I like any type of like museum that is personal, presents one specific people, selling a major history. It is like that thing in America, Roadside America. It is about finding a little treasure side of the road. Very local things.
- I love taking the streetcar (villamos - ed.) at night. I like to take any time of the day. I like to sit and listen to music and I like to take it to any stop. This streetcar also has its specific smell. Even though it’s such a simple thing, my favorite thing to do when I’m in the city. I only take public transportation. I feel like it is one of the best public transport in the world. New York public transport is horrific.
- Balaton at fall. I went this October and I have never seen this that empty. There is also no lake in the world to me like Lake Balaton. The water is so blue and shallow. To me, it is a perfect set, the water, and the sky. If you swim all the way out to the middle, where the water gets deep and just sitting there is one of my favorite things also at sunset. I have a beautiful moment. It is very tender - because we had a difficult time growing up with my sister. We are swimming. I remember the sun was setting, and I was looking at her and I felt so much love. In the sunset, in the water at sunset looking at her - I called that memory dear. That water to me is very special and magical, it has a lot child energy.
- I always loved sitting in my grandma’s tiny kitchen and watching her filling palacsinta. Her building is one of those housing buildings, a kind of block housing. I am sitting there, looking at other buildings and eating her food.
- Sour cherries. I woke up early in the morning and eat that with my grandfather on the balcony. I'm a bad sleeper, I'm up really late, so I have my quiet time, but when I’m in Hungary I wake up very early in the morning before anyone.
- I always loved the Pacsirta festmény in The National Gallery. I looked at it so much that it’s in my subconscious.
- Esti Mese. The intros, the Maci, annyira aranyos. Even the intro song.
- I really love Magyar Népmesék, the cartoons, and Mézga Család. Those shaped my brain and my creativity. Those cartoons were so beautiful and psychedelic and profound. And it is interesting looking back at all this stuff being made in Hungary.
- Dark Phrase: Békasegge. Because in English impossible to translate. In Hungary, it is really beautiful, dark, and dramatic, and it is no way to ever explain it to someone.