I can’t help but wish, sometimes, that Rookie – the online magazine for and by teenage girls, founded 2011 – was around when I was a teenager. I feel the same way about Petra Collins and her site The Ardorous (www.theardorous.com). Petra is an artist best-known for her photographs of teenage girlhood, so it’s no coincidence that Petra was an early Rookie contributor, and The Ardorous is the platform she created to share her own work and the work of others.
Offering an intimate and unmediated in-road into teenage life, many of Petra’s most celebrated shots depict young women as well as their bedrooms, their intense friendships, their fantastical attitude to clothing. Beginning with candids of her sister, Anna, and her friends, Petra’s evocative portraiture style soon gained momentum, striking a chord with young women (and sometimes men) worldwide. Femininity, feminism, identity and coming-of-age are all central themes, while her dreamy aesthetic takes its cue from vintage fashion photography. It is undeniably girlish, but also tough and at times even confrontational.
The confrontational element, however, is nearly always bound up in the female body, and Petra’s refusal to sanitise it. In 2013, she designed a t-shirt for American Apparel which showed a close-up of a menstruating woman touching herself. The point? That we’re uncomfortable with both female masturbation and menstrual blood, not least when they’re seen in unison. The ensuing media backlash (anticipated by both Petra and American Apparel) served only to prove her point; in an interview with Vice she referred to it as ‘trolling the mainstream media’.
A few weeks later, however, controversy came by surprise. Petra posted a photograph to her Instagram account showing herself waist-down, wearing bikini bottoms. Before long, the photograph (and Petra’s account) had been removed. It broke none of Instagram’s rules – hundreds of photographs of women in bikinis go up each day – the only thing different about this one is that it showed an unwaxed bikini line. The image broke no nudity regulations, only socially implicit codes on female grooming and standards of femininity.
Such body politics have become central to Petra’s work, but it is communicated by a message of freedom and empowerment, rather than anything militant or austere. In a nutshell, she’s smart, stylish and seems like a gal we’d like to knock around with. Her latest project, Babe, is a book published by Prestel Press that brings together work from many of the photographers she worked with on The Ardorous with contents ranging from the witty to the touching (often both at once), the lurid to the cute. Contributors range from sex blogger Karley Sciortino to Rookie founder Tavi Gevinson, who provides the foreword. As Babe prepares to launch, Petra spoke to us about her soaring career and struggle towards self-acceptance.
When did you start taking photographs?
I took a photography class in high school when I was 15 or 16, but I have been creating art since I was young. I’ve always been interested in film, and I guess photography is a much more accessible version of film to a teenager. It’s much easier and faster than making a movie.
You’re moving into short film now, with the Making Space series. How are you finding it?
It’s so exciting, but it’s a totally different discipline. You have to realise that! Taking photos, you have to realise everything in one image. But with film, you have so many other things to consider. It’s really exciting. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, and now that I have the opportunity to do so, I’m going to continue doing it. I made Making Space with my little sister, who is studying to be a dance teacher. It’s great because I can work with a medium that I love, and she can work with a medium that she loves.
Is it true that you once wanted to be a dancer as well?
Yeah, up until I did photography I was dancing. I actually had a really bad injury and was told not to dance again. That’s partly why I started taking photographs.
You shoot in 35mm. When did you switch to film? Or have you always used it?
Film was the first format I used. At first, I was working with disposable cameras. I didn’t own a digital camera, so it was the cheapest option. I’m not necessarily anti-digital, it’s more that I really know how to use film. Apart from that, I love that it is a physical thing, something you can hold. Film photography is like painting with light, and painting is something that I love to do too.
You’re quite classically trained, in a way, then?
You would think so. But I actually almost failed my photography classes in school because I was such a bad student! I had no technical skills. All the skills that I have are self-taught.
Wikipedia describes Richard Kern as your mentor.
He is one of my friends and has been a big help to me. I’ve worked with him since I was very young. Actually, he’s kind of taught me a lot of the technical things I wouldn’t have otherwise learned.
You work with other media as well, including neon. Would you refer to yourself as an artist, rather than a photographer?
I think artist encompasses photography, so I call myself an artist.
Your new book, Babe, collects together different artists and media. How did that come about?
It’s kind of an ongoing project. It started with my website, The Ardorous, which I started when I was 16 or 17. As a young female artist, I didn’t see any platforms to showcase my work, so I decided to create a website where I could do that, and where other female artists could as well. This book is an extension of that. It’s like a yearbook, showcasing what I see as the best artwork from young female artists today.
Did those online collaborative relationships blossom into IRL friendships over the years?
Yeah, totally. Quite a few. It’s funny because some of them I’ve known online for years and I’ve only met them in person recently. Friendships have definitely blossomed through that.
It struck me while researching this that the post-internet age has really given teenage girls a voice for the first time. No one has really given them a voice before, which is a powerful thing. Do you still see girlhood or coming-of-age as being a central topic to your work?
Definitely. Even though I’m obviously past that age, I feel that I’m now at a point in my life where I have so many more outlets to do things and speak to those girls and make their voices louder.
What do you think the next generation of artists might bring about?
I think we’re getting to a really exciting point in fashion and art where gender is becoming super fluid, which is cool because we’ve never had a broader conversation around that.
You come from an all-girl platform, though – will that become less necessary over time? Will it just be young people helping young people regardless?
I definitely come from an all-girl platform, but I think right now, things like that are still relevant. There still aren’t that many spaces for just girls. The art world is still a boys’ club, so doing things like this gives it an opportunity to expand beyond that.
You’ve worked with [teenage girls’ magazine] Rookie quite a bit too. When did you first meet Tavi?
Nearly four years ago now. We were both in Los Angeles at the same time and we decided to do one of Rookie’s first shoots together. We went to Salvation Mountain, which is a really cool place in the California desert. We became really good friends after that.
Were you into fashion as a teenager, or were you introduced to it via photography?
I was *really* into fashion as a teenager. I was actually just talking to my best friend about it, Julia [Bayliss], who’s also in the book. She has her own line now called Me and You, that does really cute underwear. Clothes were always a form of expression for me. It’s always exciting, and especially so as a young girl, to be able to express yourself and be defiant in that way. By fashion I mean clothing, not necessarily brands or designers. I would constantly be going to thrift stores and my friends would always be making things.
What kind of styles were you looking towards, then, if you weren’t into more mainstream fashion?
I was really, really obsessed with 1970s disco. I still am – I love the music and I love the fashion. So definitely that, forever and always.
Are Millennials the most nostalgic generation?
Yeah, I don’t know why it is, but definitely.
Do you have an item of clothing that means something to you?
I have about 30 pairs of Levi’s 501s. I wear them every day, all the time. They’re so comfortable, I love them. I used to dress up all the time every day and wear crazy outfits, and now I just wear jeans and t-shirts, it’s become my work uniform.
What’s the most outrageous thing you bought when you did dress up more?
I have a lot of amazing bell bottoms. Like, some *really* crazy bell bottoms.
The American Apparel t-shirt you designed was pretty controversial at the time. How did the company respond to it?
It’s funny, American Apparel wasn’t hesitant about the image at all and we knew it would be such a big deal. They were really easy and cool about it.
Your other big controversy was over the bikini line photo. Did Instagram ever respond to that whole thing? Or give a reason for removing it?
I never got a response. I find it so weird. But whatever.
Did the whole debacle strengthen your views?
Totally. The more things like that happen, the more proactive I become.
Did your decision to explore body issues originate with your own anxieties? You seem like you’re quite able to externalise societal pressures and *not* be held back by body issues…
It’s funny. It’s something that is also the hardest thing for me. Even though I’m so educated about body positivity, it’s so hard to shake it off yourself. Sometimes I think, ‘What would they actually think if *they* knew how I felt about *myself*?” It’s really hard. I’m definitely better than I was before, but when you’ve been told something for your whole life, it’s very hard to shake.
But do I think, slowly, hopefully, as things change, my views will and other peoples’ will as well… But I also really think that it’s becoming different for young girls today. When my sister and I made that documentary [Making Space], the main thing we wanted to explore was dance as a form of empowerment. We wanted to talk to the girls about that, but we found that a lot of the girls were already empowered and *weren’t* hating themselves.
People talk about a fourth wave of feminism – would you ascribe to that idea?
There’s definitely a fourth wave, for sure. All movements change with time, and I think the fourth wave is really exciting, it’s all about inclusiveness over exclusivity. It’s starting to think about feminism not just in terms of white, privileged women.
What’s most important to you?
Friendships are really important to me, over anything. I love surrounding myself around people who really inspire me, and who I love creating artwork with, and who I can trust, and who I can talk to all the time.
What’s your favourite way to spend a day off?
Lying in bed with my friends! *[laughs]* That’s my favourite place. I like to just hang out in my bed and eat and hang out with my friends.
What are you working on next?
I really want to write a script to create a feature film.
Babe curated by Petra Collins is out May 1 on Prestel.
Words: Rosa Abbott
Images: Monika Mogi, Aimee Leigh Rachel Hodgson, & Petra Collins