“I walk a fine line between horror and comedy,” says Petra Collins, laughing. “Even though my work can be dark or unsettling, what I would like people to feel is some sense of joy.” It’s a goal that the photographer, director, and filmmaker is achieving through various avenues—all while quietly influencing the pop culture narrative with her highly personal lens. In recent years, Collins has helped to visually define the pop music scene, creating music videos and entire vibes for the likes of Selena Gomez (“Fetish,” “Bad Liar”) and Olivia Rodrigo (“good 4 u,” “brutal,” “vampire,” and “bad idea, right?”). Gucci, MAC, Blumarine, and more have relied on her for memorable campaigns, she’s a go-to for an off-kilter editorial, and she’s collaborated with the likes of Alexa Demie, dreaming up fairytale-inspired imagery just for the joy of it.
Collins’s gaze is colored by pastels and knee socks, niche references, and a relatable, slightly disturbing representation of girl-slash-young-womanhood—a haunted ingenue aesthetic familiar to those of us raised on Sofia Coppola. “I’ve always felt uncomfortable performing femininity,” she says. “I don’t necessarily feel connected to what’s feminine, and I think that’s why I throw it so much into my work, because it’s something that feels very far away.” Also present in Collins’s work is an indie Tumblr feel, which is unsurprising, as the platform’s hay day saw her start as an artist. (She actually worked her way into her old account a few weeks back in order to get a sense of the imagery and inspiration she was consuming throughout the era.)
“I feel like I got really lucky to be a teenager in that time,” she says. “I was able to access so many things that I wouldn’t necessarily have, and that I probably wouldn’t have if I grew up today—it wasn’t overloaded, it was so focused. I learned everything there.” That “everything” included a deep knowledge of Czech New Wave movies, along with an informal art education, and a promotional platform that helped the then 15-year-old to embark on her photography career. “It’s interesting and strange because a lot of the work that I looked at and work that I was focusing on was very youth-focused, which is very much how everything is,” she says. “So it’s interesting growing past that, or growing into an age…like, I’m not old. But evolving into non-age specific work.”
Though pop stars are indeed the stars of Collins’s music videos, the vision is all hers—a reality that requires a lot of trust from everyone involved. “When I have these ideas I keep the person in mind and then ask them how they feel about them, and then we have a big back and forth about it,” she says. As such, the pared-down beauty featured in the majority of Olivia Rodrigo’s videos is all down to direction. “Costume and makeup is so important to the look of something, so I’m super intense about that, because beauty can change the look and the feel and even the period of time in which you’re shooting,” Collins explains.