Whether it’s a hazy lookbook photo for clothing line Me and You featuring two teen BFFs holding hands in bed or an overexposed shot of Bella Hadid in a tank top and gingham panties for Vogue, Petra Collins’ raw, dreamlike images have made her the fashion industry’s go-to photog for otherworldly visuals of subverted sexuality and instant cool cred. In just three years, the Toronto-born artist has gone from OCAD University student to shooting for mega-brands such as Stella McCartney, Levi’s, Adidas and Coach, as well as glossies like Wonderland, Purple, i-D and Vogue.
Her big break came in 2013 at the age of 19, when she became pals with New York photographer and downtown art scene enfant terrible Ryan McGinley. He purchased one of her pieces at a student art show, adopted her as a protege and invited her to pose in one of his road trip photo series, set in West Virginia and Georgia. Much of Collins’ work challenges traditional ideals of femininity. One of her more recognizable pieces—an up-close-and-personal sketch of a masturbating menstruating woman—earned notoriety in October 2013 when it appeared on an American Apparel T-shirt. Shortly thereafter, Instagram famously removed one of her self-portraits because it showed pubic hair protruding from a pair of cotton underwear (the ban was eventually lifted because, duh, they’re just pubes). Despite the occasional censorship, Collins says social media has been a positive factor in changing attitudes around female genitalia and sexuality. “It’s so important to normalize these kinds of images,” she says. “We still have a long way to go, but these platforms are giving us all a voice and bringing like-minded people together.” And by “together,” she means IRL: in 2011, she launched The Ardorous, a collective of young female artists she recruited from Instagram, including fellow Canadian photog Maya Fuhr and London-based stylist Moni Haworth. Today, they form a crew of exciting collaborators who appear in one another’s projects, wear one another’s designs, and inspire one another’s work.
This year, her Botticelli-babe vibes caught the attention of Alessandro Michele, who invited Collins to walk in Gucci’s fall ’16 show and star in the campaign alongside fellow model muses Lia Pavlova, Polina Oganicheva, Mae Lapres and Sophia Friesen. “Brands today are gravitating toward authenticity,” says Collins. “Real people with a real point of view.”