Perhaps you haven’t heard her name, but you have surely seen her work — or at least some of the failed attempts to ape it that now flood Instagram. A Nadia Lee Cohen photo is a window to a sort of dreamworld; an imagined subculture on the fringes of reality. People shine with an oiled polish normally reserved for plastic. Icons of the American consciousness, aesthetic pieces designed around big ideas and a perceived sense of being “carefree,” are bent, twisted and manipulated to turn what could be ordinary stories into tales worthy of full blockbuster features.
Cohen herself is not American. She is a British woman currently based in Los Angeles, where the majority of her work is now completed, but her rendition of Americana is currently unparalleled. Before her Los Angeles move, she completed photography studies at the London College of Fashion. It was there that two things happened; first, she was included in the prestigious Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize in 2012, leading to her work being shown at the National Portrait Gallery in London, and second, she took a trip to the West Coast of the United States. While the former point may be more striking on a CV, for Cohen, this West Coast journey was the culmination of years of study, practice and cultural fascination. Her photos became grander, playing with the artifice of the American suburbs and toeing the line between fantasy and reality.
A considerable buzz grew around her name. She worked with brands like Miu Miu and Adidas. She directed music videos for DRAM, Tyler the Creator and others. Her self-portraits, which see her in incredible costume matched with a signature style and flair, began racking up Instagram likes and online shares. Today, she is a highly sought-after creative mind with many devoted fans. We had a few questions for Cohen about life, diners, the suburbs and her show, which is currently in Málaga until May 12. Here’s what she had to say.
You’re known to not use studio models, instead opting to use everyday people. What’s your method for finding the perfect person to photograph?
I use a mixture of real people and agency models, it just depends on who fits the character. It does tend to veer towards everyday people, as I prefer finding someone that resembles a person I have seen on the street.
What’s your favourite part of the American suburbs?
It’s aesthetically pleasing, but the sense of oneupmanship and the façade of keeping up appearances amuses me.
What’s your go-to diner order?
There’s a diner called Canters in LA, I love it despite its terrible food rating and the fact that several elderly people have died in there (not because of the bad food, just because they were old); here I will order chips, a tea, and some watermelon.
A lot of your photographs involve leisure activities, or people relaxing in (admittedly) unorthodox ways. After a long day, how do you unwind?
I adore a bath, but I currently don’t have one in my apartment so when I’m travelling I spend the majority of the trip submerged in a hotel bath.
Your photos are pretty distinct, neat, polished. In your day-to-day life, are you an organised person?
Ever since I was a kid I’ve made handwritten to-do lists, however, the lists don’t seem to change my tendency to leave everything to the last minute, even if I know about something months before it’s usually completed 2 hours before the deadline.
What are your “desert island movies,” i.e. three to five movies you would be happy watching over and over for the rest of your life?
This is hard as I’d get so sick of them, I’m thinking I should pick really long ones so then I’d pass more time but instead, I’ll just do a few of my favourites; The Shining, Female Trouble, Magnolia, Weekend, The Birds, Paris Texas.
You’ve directed a few music videos over the years, including recent videos for D.R.A.M. and Kali Uchis. Any musicians you’re dying to work with?
Someone people would least expect.
What was your longest setup for a single shot? If you don’t remember, what was your most chaotic shoot?
We almost died at a shoot in Joshua Tree, it’s a long story but it involves my hairstylist, stylist, two meth addicts and two dogs.
Many of your subjects are mid-twenties and older, often hitting their forties, fifties, sixties and beyond. What makes older people more attractive to you as subjects than younger people?
I am drawn to character in someone’s face, despite their age. I just guess older people tend to have more character.
What are the biggest differences working with models from London, where you attended photography school, and Los Angeles, where you now reside?
People still go to Los Angeles to become a star, alongside that ambition often comes eccentricity in their appearance in order to stand out; think of Angelyne the billboard queen – she epitomizes this.
Photos you post on Instagram get a lot of attention. Have you found that Instagram has changed how you approach non-Instagram photography?
I don’t think so, perhaps some images intended for social media might be considered as short-lived; and I would prefer my photographs to have some sort of longevity and future relevance.
Did you find self-portraiture came naturally or did it take some getting used to?
I’ve always loved to dress up, I remember creating this character from my mum’s wardrobe when I was about 7 years old called ‘Adele Gera’ – she wore an outfit consisting of my mum’s long gold mac, gold shoes (several sizes too big) and thick coke bottle glasses.
You play around a lot with brands and pop art. Do you ever worry that you yourself are becoming a brand, or is that something you’re fine with? Do you maybe even intend it?
I’ve never really thought about it, it’s definitely not intentional and maybe not avoidable, so if that is the case I may as well embrace it.
Cut one colour out of the spectrum. Which one is it?
Would your ten-year-old self be surprised by what you’re doing now?
I believed in Fairies and Father Christmas so probably not.
Nadia Lee Cohen’s first solo exhibition, ‘Not a Retrospective’, is currently on show at La Térmica, Málaga, Spain.
All images used in this post are the property and by courtesy of Nadia Lee Cohen.
words. Braden Bjella