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How Petra Collins Went From Failing High School To Photographing For Gucci

In an industry where the same five men shoot almost every campaign, Collins used her youth and femininity to blaze a new trail.
Photo by Nguan, courtesy of Petra Collins

Photo by Nguan, courtesy of Petra Collins

In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.

Petra Collins has shot campaigns for Gucci, Adidas and Nordstrom, photographed celebs like Kim Kardashian and Bella Hadid and seen her work featured in museums like the Tate Modern and magazines like Vogue — all by age 24. But the Canadian photographer known for her dreamy film portrayals of youth, sexuality and femininity hasn't always lived a charmed life.

At 18, she flunked her senior year of high school. "My family was having a tough time and I just never went to school. I was really struggling," she says. "It was a super low point in my life."

Failing her senior year ended up as a blessing in disguise, however, when Collins landed in an alternative school with an arts teacher who encouraged her to get out and shoot rather than sitting in class. "Having a great teacher and school kind of saved me," she says. Shortly thereafter, Collins began publishing her work in the then-new teen mag Rookie in addition to starting her own online curation space for female artists.

In the years since then, Collins has continually proven that she's noteworthy for more than just how early her success began. If what made her initially appealing was her outsider's perspective and distinctive analog aesthetic, what's made her a top photographer in the industry is the way she continues to evolve that vision for bigger and bigger gigs in the world of photography, art and fashion. Collins shared with Fashionista what it's taken to move from teen wunderkind to industry pro and the lessons she's learned along the way.

When did you first start shooting?

I started taking photos when I was 15 or 16. I always had the need to create some sort of art in order to get through life, and photography is what I picked up. As a young female photographer, I didn't see a place for my work anywhere, so I created The Ardorous when I was 17 or 18. It was a platform for female artists to show their work, and it got a lot of traction.

What was the first big gig that you landed beyond your own platform?

Rookie was one of the first things and it was so, so important for me. I had a really rough time in school because I was dyslexic and have trouble reading and writing. That's one reason that I turned to art as a kid, because that was the only thing I could communicate through and really put my feelings into.

One of my peers at the alternative school told me I should submit to Rookie and I was like, "oh, I don't think it's gonna happen; my photos aren't that good." But then I immediately got an email back from Tavi [Gevinson] saying that my aesthetic was what she was thinking for Rookie. It became this really big and important part of my life that gave me a lot of creative freedom. Every month I was thinking of different things to shoot, almost like a great class where I had regular assignments.

After that, Vice was one of the first ones to give me space in print. Then when I moved to New York, I decided that I should curate an art show IRL like I'd already been doing online. Literally in the first week of moving here, I got a group show funded by American Apparel, who I'd been working for in the store. That felt really big; the turnout was crazy. I also created a T-shirt with American Apparel that ended up being this huge news story, which I did not expect.

And then I just continued. It's weird, I almost can't keep track of it. People just kept asking to work with me.

What happened between high school and moving to New York?

I went to two years of university, but I studied criticism and curatorial practice rather than photography. I was really into school, but dropped out because I couldn't afford it. I decided to move to New York instead because I was getting more and more opportunities, and I felt I had gotten enough from school.

When I first got to New York I had enough photography jobs to make money, but I moved here with a suitcase and $500. It still baffles me how I made it work because I didn't have any financial backup.

Why did you choose to study curation in college?

It's important to do other things to strengthen the medium you work with. But curating is also such a part of my photo life and my life as a creative, so it was helpful for figuring out how to take influences from different mediums and put them into my photos. I also think curating specifically as a woman is great because working in groups makes us more powerful than if we do things alone. Plus there's probably nothing better than watching people that I love and respect become successful. It's important to try and raise everyone around you up rather than being competitive.

What role have those relationships played in your life and work?

I'm always reaching out, and I feel like other creatives reach out to me because I love being in other people's work and interpreting it and creating something together. Whether it's music or fashion or whatever, I keep an open mind and put out an energy that says "work with me."

When you started you felt like there weren't really outlets for your work, so you put it online. Does that still work for young photographers?

Because of things like Rookie and The Ardorous and Art Hoe Collective, there's a lot more spaces for young women and minorities. There are so many platforms that didn't exist before and the internet plays a really big part in that. It's more accepting and there are more opportunities.

If there wasn't a place for your aesthetic before, now it's so well-loved that other people riff on it constantly. How do you feel about that?

There's a difference between seeing someone in a similar stage copying my work and seeing teenagers who are just learning to shoot copying my photography, because that's sort of how you learn, by copying what you love. So it's heartwarming for me to see young people copying my work or doing projects on it. It means they really love it.

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Where does the inspiration for this very distinctive look flow from?

I've been so lucky to have almost all my commercial and editorial work be completely my creative vision. That's not the case for so many people. But I can't force inspiration; it just has to be something that happens. My photos are created from the deepest pit of my soul, so my work grows as I grow. As someone out of school, it's so important to continue to learn about the world because that's what contributes to my photos and self-knowledge.

You've been landing bigger commercial campaigns every year. Was that something that you always wanted?

I would love to just have my work in galleries, but I also enjoy commercial work. I approach them the same; it's just different subject matter. The short film that I did for the Tate Modern's Georgia O'Keeffe exhibit was maybe one of the best things I've done. But I recently did this Nordstrom campaign and those photos are some of my favorite ever, too, because I basically just cast all my friends and family and my crew were people that I constantly work with.

It's beneficial to a brand and to myself for me to create work I actually like. That's why I'm always really strict about how many people are allowed on set, because I want to directly connect with my subject. I'm used to it being just me. And I usually don't use professional lighting or anything; I use a flashlight or other weird little gadgets.

Do you still shoot mostly film? Why is that important to you?

I shoot all film, except when I'm shooting video. I go at photography very physically, and I feel like having the negatives, putting them in the camera, figuring out what light to use to expose the negatives and then taking the roll out is just a nice process. With film you really have to think about each shot, because you only have 24 or 36 shots in a roll.

It seems like a lot of people who are really committed to analog hate social media and want stay away from it, but you've really embraced it.

For me, analog is just a tool. And the internet is something I grew up on. I don't use analog because I dislike digital; I use it because it's the way I learned photography. I respect both.

You've collaborated a good deal with Gucci, from walking the runway to shooting (and starring in!) campaigns. How did that come about?

I got cast in the show and met Alessandro [Michele] when we were doing fittings, and it sort of just went from there. We really got along and he loved my work. I don't think I'm ever gonna walk in a show again, but because I love everything Alessandro created, it was fun to wear the clothes. And as an ex-dancer, it was fun to be onstage again.

Does your dance background inform how you think about photographing bodies?

Definitely. I move so much and get myself into the weirdest positions when I take pictures, which is why my photos are so intimate. I can figure out a way to interact with my subject that doesn't feel intrusive but is also very close. And I really know how bodies move and work. Having a background in dance helped that. I feel like that's part of why I love film, too, because it's a really physical act.

You've done so much already, but do you have a dream project?

I am obsessed with Rihanna; I would love to shoot her. She's the one person that I would actually be starstruck by. I think she's so powerful and cool and I've actually used her lyrics in my artwork.

You started as a photographer but have been moving into more video lately. Where do you see yourself in 10 to 15 years?

I will hopefully have a feature film under my belt by then. I feel like horror is something you can really subvert, so I imagine going that route. I've always approached my photos in a cinematic manner, so I think creating films is natural.

What things would you like to see change for other young women photographers?

I would love for them have the same respect men do. There are a lot of powerful photographers that are female, but it's always been the same, like, five men that shoot all of the campaigns, all the covers, everything. I'm not gonna name names, but I think it's very obvious who they are.

I remember you saying once that you used to have a fake email where you would pretend to be your own agent before you actually had one. Are there other hacks that you used to get around not really knowing the system early in your career?

Well, just to be clear, I actually have real managers now. (laughs) But when you're young, you have to watch your back and make sure people take you seriously. Even now, as a professional photographer who's been shooting for almost 10 years, it's still hard to command respect because I'm young and a woman. You have to play up being a boss and being sure of yourself.

I feel like one of the biggest "life hacks," honestly, is just to not quit. That's the difference between someone who's going to be successful and someone who isn't: patience.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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