Book Review: Coming of Age by Petra Collins
By Leah Pfenning
Petra Collins emerged as a significant photographer in 2011 with her airy, documentary-style photography that boasts an unapologetic feminist poignancy. In the beginning the young photographer's popularity was especially prevalent amongst teens and young women. She quickly befriended and joined forces with Tavi Gevinson, founder of the fashion editorial, Rookie, as a resident photographer for the online magazine. The artist’s career has evolved from photographing her sister and friends to editorial, commercial and even film work. Collin’s first monograph, Coming of Age, is an intimate account of her journey as a photographer. The book is flanked with photographs of the artist’s family and a curated selection of photos, letters, interviews and narratives elucidating Collin’s odyssey to success and establishing her own feminist dogma in the world of art and fashion.
The book is not structured in any chronological order, we touch on different times and places in Collin’s life in fits and starts. The commentary is casual and fragmented, a tone that lends itself to the artist’s own portrayal of modern young women. The book begins with a foreword by Collins, “I don’t really know how I got here. I do, but I don’t. I’m happy to have the chance to make my own work, to have girls identify with the characters I’m creating. I feel like I’ve lived hundreds of years, but of course it’s been no time at all.” The ethereal, or inherently vague in the pejorative, tone of both Collin’s writing and photography harken back to a third-wave feminist ideology that the artist has adopted as her signature style.
Collins works with an aesthetic that is revered by some as revolutionary - women captured as natural, indefinite and raw, unshaved, un-retouched and period-stained panties; but this intimate insight into the life of young women is not exactly a revolution. Photographers such as Cindy Sherman, Hannah Wilke and Abigail Heyman have paved the way for contemporary feminist photography back in the 70's with the avant-garde movement. What Collins has succeeded in is re-pioneering the aesthetic with 21st century women and a gravitas rooted in her own personal tribulations through battling eating disorders, mental illness and the social impact from the epidemic of photo-shopped fashion photography. The artist rose to prominence as a feminist voice in 2013 when her Instagram account was deleted after posting a photograph of herself in a bikini exposing pubic hair. An essay contesting the admissible portrayal of the female body written by Collins and published by The Huffington Post, which quickly went viral, followed the incident.
In this digital age with the ubiquity of camera phones, social media and selfies, the constant feed of photography, and the demand to constantly contribute to that feed for the sake of relevancy, has put into question what makes a photograph good. What makes it beautiful? Coming of Age is timely to these questions and counters them with a like elusiveness. Collin’s attitude argues that it’s good because she says it’s good, and she says it’s good because it’s true - and what could be more beautiful than the truth. Though the photographer is regarded as a strong feminist, she remains extremely approachable in her work, veering away from the didactic and leaning into the ethereal softness of femininity and what that means in these modern times.
Collin’s photography has long stood strong on it’s own, but the commentary in Coming of Age elevates the work to a new level. The author’s voice is simple and open; it invites you in immediately, not as a voyeur, but as an intimate friend. The beauty and the aching of young womanhood are tangled together on every page, it’s a universal kind of growing up, a shared trial. Coming of Age is a nostalgic adventure that acknowledges the shadowed corners of growing up as a woman, illuminating them with a generous light that everyone looks beautiful in.