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Petra Collins The End of the Decade

Petra Collins on how Tumblr feminism became corporate capitalism

The decade-defining photographer and director reflects on Tumblr feminism and coming out the other side of co-option

Deep fakes, influencers, viral fashion – we live in a world unrecognisable from the one we stood in ten years ago. As a chaotic decade comes to a close, we're speaking to the people who helped shape the last ten years and analysing the cultural shifts that have defined them. Explore the decade on our interactive timeline here, or head here to check out all our features.

Ten years ago, I was holed up in my teenage bedroom spending hours upon hours online, and specifically on Tumblr. My laptop screen was a portal to another world; a universe in which girls were creating work to define their own existences. To push against reductive stereotypes and to clap back at the narrow view of femininity they’d been fed for their entire existences.

It was there that I first came across Petra Collins’ work, falling in love with her now-defunct collective, The Ardorous, which was a website that gave female-identified artists a legitimate platform to operate on. Nine years on and Petra and her photography need no introduction. Since the turn of the decade, she has created multiple bodies of personal photography dealing with the trials and tribulations of grappling with her own identity, through the lens of a 35mm camera. From her humble beginnings online, then as a founding Rookie contributor, the Canada-born artist has gone on to shoot Gucci campaigns, as well as act as the brand’s muse and a face of one of its fragrances. Collins has worked extensively with Selena Gomez and exhibited at New York’s MoMA. 

But with the co-option of fourth-wave feminism becoming more and more pervasive as artists departed Tumblr for Instagram, Collins’ work – along with the work of her peers – found itself at the forefront of commodification. What started as a group of women and queer people – only then teenagers themselves – using their online platforms to muddle through the mess of feminine stereotypes, became moodboard fodder for huge corporations desperate for a new approach to sell products under the guise of empowerment. 

Collins’ influence on modern aesthetics can be seen everywhere from the Instagram posts of ‘feminist’ razor brands right up to HBO’s breakout series of the year, Euphoria. While pastel colour palettes and a soft focus may most quickly come to mind when her name is mentioned, Collins’ describes this as her “biggest pet peeve and annoyance”. “Every time I see that, I want to be like, literally, what photo are you talking about? The first photos that I did were super dark – there’s no pastel in those.” 

This misunderstanding of her photography is symptomatic of a larger misreading of ‘Tumblr feminism’ and the group of artists who emerged from it. Many of them, including Collins, were using extreme femininity to highlight the darkness and flaws within it. While it’s easy to see her early imagery as explicitly celebrating girlhood, there has always been a sinister undercurrent. As the decade draws to a close, Collins’ work is darker than ever before, using dismembered body parts made in collaboration with Sarah Sitkin to create striking self-portraiture harking back to her love of exploitation films. 

I sat down with Collins to discuss what the first decade of her career has taught her as an artist; from the importance of working collectively to the legacy of her early work, and how it feels to come out the other side of having your aesthetic misread and co-opted.

Where were you at the beginning of the decade?

Petra Collins: It’s so funny because I really have a sense of trying to place this. Ten years ago, I was 16. I was in Toronto, and that’s actually when I was really starting to take photos, or it was getting into it… That was the year that I figured out my aesthetic, really. This was pre-Rookie and pre-The Ardorous. I was 16, just really going through it, and taking photos.

Were you already on Tumblr ten years ago?

Petra Collins: Oh my god, totally on Tumblr! On Tumblr before that, even. I was heavily, heavily influenced by everything I was seeing on Tumblr. That’s where I also got my bearings for what I liked, because I wasn’t seeing anything, obviously, in any magazines, movies, or on television. I was going to Tumblr to see what other content, or what other things, I could access that were closer to me.

When did you start The Ardorous and why?

Petra Collins: I guess I started at 17, or I maybe started it during 2010. I was heavily on Tumblr, and I was creating a lot of art, and I didn’t see a community or a platform that I thought was a space where these people were being identified. I’ve always been a deep art lover, and my favourite things were going to museums. I’m seeing all this work on Tumblr, and I’m seeing this whole movement and aesthetic and genre come up, and I really wanted a place for it to go. I wanted a professional platform to exist. 

This is why I started taking photos – to archive things and create history. By making The Ardorous, it was doing that, to me. It was making a space in our cultural landscape where these things could exist. The website is still there – even though it’s not around anymore – just because I love having that exist. Seeing so many things that I felt were so important, that I was so worried about getting lost in cyberspace. I was like, if I can consolidate all of them, marking it as work, that was very important.

“We were all very young when we started, so none of us had experienced that yet, and I think it’s normal what happened. But it’s really depressing seeing (feminism) co-opted and sold back to the most insane degree” – Petra Collins

That’s exactly why I made my zine Polyester as well, to do the same thing but in print. I was seeing all this stuff on Tumblr and was like, why aren’t people talking about it in the way I want them to? So then I decided to do it.

Petra Collins: For me, also what’s cool is that Polyester is a print version, and a continuation, a zine version with all those artists, with all this work that should be pointed out in art history. All this work that wasn’t recognised institutionally, really. The more it was talked about, the more that work was created, within and around it, and with these artists. It sort of cemented it. 

What’s also kind of a bummer for me now, is like all these artists, all those people creating that work, led to what we have now in our capitalist society. It’s crazy seeing it come full-circle, seeing all those girls’ aesthetics, which was that pink – which we didn’t call ‘millennial pink’ – turn into something that everyone has used and sold. It was a colour that wasn’t the colour; it was a vibe that wasn’t the vibe. I want history to reflect that that was the beginning of that.

How do you feel looking back? I definitely have conflicting feelings of how Tumblr feminism has just mutated into this commercialised thing that is so far removed from the original idea of it. 

Petra Collins: Of course. It’s weird – it’s so crazy it’s been ten years, but I’ve come to a very strange place which I’m still figuring out. The reason I was using that colour was that I felt so removed from it. It was a lot of us trying to subvert it, and I felt so removed from it. It was also the aesthetic of Polyester too – that whole aesthetic was about reclaiming it. It felt dirty and gross to me, using all those things that were sold to us as feminine. We were all very young when we started, so none of us had experienced that yet, and I think it’s normal what happened. But it’s really depressing seeing it co-opted to the most insane degree.

It irks me in many ways when people talk about this whole commercialisation of Tumblr feminism. I see a lot of talk on the internet that we were complicit in that happening, or that the art was kind of basic. I find that a really hard thing to reconcile as something that meant so much to me at the time.

Petra Collins: It’s really hard because I think about this too. The reason I did it, and the reason I still do it, is because I need to do it to survive. I’m creating things because I love them. I feel complicit too! I was just trying to go into these spaces, and none of us realised the power of what we were working on. For a period of time, it was really exciting, but again, once that cycle – that monster – continues, it turns into something that’s sold, that isn’t genuine.

That can be said very specifically about your aesthetic as well. What you did with your work was two-pronged in that you gave a lot of girls the confidence to be able to make work, but from that, your aesthetic has been co-opted massively. How do you feel about that?

Petra Collins: I’m having a really hard time with this recently. Sometimes a big part of me feels like... stolen. I’ve always wanted people to accrue things around me, but for people to create their own things and not take. It’s really strange. I literally just have to go with all that and keep moving on, because I feel like every artist does. But it’s just crazy seeing so much of my work, and it being so removed from me, where everyone’s like, this is the aesthetic of the era, and I’m like, no. This is not that. 

It’s your life and your work. I wrote this recently when I was talking about the new zines because someone asked how Polyester has changed – and with the co-option of that aesthetic, it forces you to dig deeper, and be better and think more and work harder. But by the same token, that means that you’re doing the hard work that can then be picked up and co-opted again. 

Petra Collins: Exactly! You know what’s funny too, with Polyester, that kind of vibe is literally what a million corporations sell now. That’s what their catalogue looks like. Now we are figuring out how to deal with this because now we’ve seen it happen. The craziest things I’ve seen too – one of the things that really hurt, that I was really shocked by – was by a razor brand.

When I began, I had a class that was just based on research. I was like, I’m going to do it on female body hair. There was this photo of Amerada with arms and hair, and it was taken so badly out of context, about the bikini line and stuff. The whole part of that industry, whether we like it or not, is rendering women, and you’re submissive, and it is through a paedophilic gaze. That’s why a lot of my early work was about hair, whatever. But it’s crazy seeing that sentiment, and having the same product, sold back through the aesthetic generated to subvert it – you’re still selling me that tool that’s making me remove it! Because of the thing! It’s just the same thing – different spin on it. But you still want me to change.

Have you ever felt restricted by the feminist label that you garnered from having your start on Tumblr and Rookie?

Petra Collins: 100 per cent. It’s funny because the thing about it is that it will always work against you. It was working against you when it wasn’t popular, and now it’s working against you now it is popular. It’s just been that my whole life. It’s not something that I’m upset or angry about. I guess because I’m someone who does something new constantly, it’s something that is difficult that I have to constantly bear. But I have no complaints because I obviously love a box that I can break out of. 

Something that I really like about the way that you approach your work, is that you’ve always collaborated and bought other people into your practice. Having a community around you has been important to you.

Petra Collins: Oh my god, that’s day one for me, and that’s how I started everything. That’s more the sentiment of old Tumblr. I also love isolating myself and making work or whatever, but the only way of growing is from others. I guess it’s how I grew up; and when I was going into an arty field, I wanted my peers to be my peers. I wanted to be able to work with and be stimulated by people that I respected. 

I really admired, and I think it was really important, how Tavi did Rookie – and how that brought so many people together and brought opportunity to so many people. It also did to me, so that’s one thing. But when you’re creating art, it’s essential to work with other people. I don’t think it’s necessarily having to collaborate on pieces, but the only way to grow, and the only way to learn, and the only way to create dynamic work is to be speaking and constantly reflecting with people around you. That’s just how I need to do things. 

I went to university in Toronto for criticism and curatorial practice. What was so amazing was that the whole programme was based around curating change. A lot of what we learned was how work affects other work in a space. Collaboration is bringing more people in and changing the landscape. It’s how you tell stories, and how you tell them as multi-faceted and not just one view of something. It’s essential and it’s so fun.

“(The feminist label) will always work against you. It was working against you when it wasn’t popular, and it’s working against you now it is popular” – Petra Collins

There’s a fundamental difference that I’ve seen amongst people our age, between those even five years younger. Everyone who was on Tumblr is so community-focused or just wants to do things in a group – whereas I see a lot of younger people who started on Instagram and are very individualistic in their approaches. Part of me wonders if that’s why we’ve got to where we are now, because the internet and creativity has largely become about extreme individualism.

Petra Collins: Well, also if you get into politics, we’re literally in a period now where no one wants to work together. We have no regard for anyone with other use than us. The status of criticism and curatorial practice is to not preach to the choir and that’s what I’ve learnt from day one. Now we’re so based on resistance and hate that we’re getting nowhere. I don’t know. That anger is moving away from being human.

That always scares me because the thing that I loved, and that was such a main part of my work, was that there’s so much darkness in it, and there have to be wrongs for there to be rights. You can’t have something that’s just pure, and sanitised, and clean. It’s what we were talking about: a sanitised feminism. I can really say that we actually don’t take time to learn from each other and to listen because we don’t want to. We love attacking, but we don’t like listening and collaborating.

What would you like to see more of in art?

Petra Collins: I feel like we’re going to go through another painting Renaissance, or another medium because we need that mirror to the world and we don’t have that. Every mirror that we have is warped. We’re so removed from what photography is and what photos are, and I’m excited to see what work comes out of this whole era that’s not photo-based. 

I can’t ask anything of art because you can never get what you ask for, but I’m excited to see what the resistance of this time will be like.