Through The Lens spotlights emerging and established photographers from around the world. The ongoing series is dedicated to offering unique insights in varying areas of photographic expertise including portrait, landscape, fine art, fashion, documentary and more.
Nadia Lee Cohen is not a pragmatist, nor does she use words like ‘magic’ when describing her own work. But there is something clearly surreal in the way she’s able to frame the ordinary.
In the past decade, the London-born, Los Angeles-based artist has ascended up the art world like few have in recent memory — directing music videos for A$AP Rocky and Kali Uchis, global shoots for Gucci and Balenciaga, releasing several books with IDEA and more.
Seeing the hyper-stylized scenes she creates, it would surprise many to learn that Cohen grew up on a rural farm in the U.K. In hindsight, it allowed her “to be a child for longer,” as her imagination “wasn’t interrupted,” she told HYPEBEAST.
Having attended the London College of Fashion, Cohen cites Martin Parr, Cindy Sherman and Larry Sultan as some of the many inspirations who opened her eyes to the humor within the seemingly mundane occurrences of daily life. Similarly, Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch show influence on Cohen, whose work is at once eerie, voyeuristic and spellbinding.
Although she states that there are “no overt messages” she’s trying to convey — the questioning of beauty and identity show to be a constant throughout her career.
Cohen finds glamour in the mundane and socially ‘ugly’ corners of the world — real or fictitious. She takes it one step further by injecting a sense of surrealism in her subjects — from four-armed sunbathers to a three-breasted bodybuilder who’s clearly spent too much time at the tanning salon.
Back on the topic of books, Cohen released Women in 2020 — a six-year survey of contemporary womanhood as shown through 100 nudist portraits. Last year, she worked with IDEA on another title, HELLO, My Name Is…, which presents a series of 33 characters that Cohen created from the nametags of unknown people. The inspiration for the book came from an In-N-Out badge that a teenage boy named Jesus gave to her on Easter.
At first, she didn’t really know what to do with the tags, but upon collecting more and more at charity shops and flea markets, Cohen started to imagine the life of these characters by connecting them to the obejects she’d collect.
There is, for example, Teena, the Marlboro Red-smoking Jane Birkin fan; Ivett, the melancholic casino dealer and Cohen’s personal favorite, Jeff, the self-assured bolo-tie wearing cowboy.
In short, HELLO, My Name Is… is a masterclass in photography and styling, as it is in storytelling and transformation. Housed at Jeffrey Deitch Gallery in Los Angeles, the British artist brought both her last two books to life through an incredibly immersive exhibition featuring video and film installations, along with blown-up portraits of the characters she’d imagined and the conveyer belt of objects that formed them.
For those in LA, be sure to check out the show as it ends tomorrow, August 13. Meanwhile, check out the full Through The Lens interview with Cohen below.
“I remember the first time I saw an episode of Ren & Stimpy in the early 90’s and it completely blew my mind.”
How would you describe your childhood?
Feral, muddy, rainy, cozy. I grew up on essentially a building site / farm in the English countryside that my parents were doing up. It was sandwiched between masses of green grass, cornfields, haystacks and dense woodland. I spent most days covered in mud searching for fossils, freeing trapped pheasants or helping rabbits blinded with myxomatosis. I think it allowed me to be a child for longer as my imagination wasn’t interrupted.
Can you recall your earliest memories of art?
I don’t think this counts but I remember the first time I saw an episode of Ren & Stimpy in the early 90’s and it completely blew my mind.
“I really suffer with ‘grass is greener’ syndrome when I’m in either place.”
Was photography and film clear to you as a career path when you were younger?
Not at all, I had no clear direction of what I wanted to do even up until around the age of 16. Still confused, I enrolled in a course called ‘fashion portfolio’ at the London College of Fashion; which is essentially a little bit of everything until you whittle away at the career paths you have no hope in. I ended up with ‘styling and photography’ and one day my tutor said ‘you can’t do both, you have to pick one’ so I picked photography and that was that.
Moving from the UK to LA, how would you describe your new home? Does it live up to your expectations or let you down?
I really suffer with ‘grass is greener’ syndrome when I’m in either place. I obviously have a love for both, the UK is my reality and LA is my hyper-reality. I have to leave both often and to travel in order to avoid becoming blind to what they each mean to me.
“I am into things that were triggered by those initial inspirations, almost like a spider diagram.”
What would you say some of your biggest inspirations were in your formative years and today?
I had a boyfriend in my teens who taught me a lot about punk culture and underground movies that I would have had no idea about if I hadn’t gotten into that relationship, shoutout to Nick! Now I am into things that were triggered by those initial inspirations, almost like a spider diagram.
Do you have a dream project or film that you would love to star in or direct?
I do, it just doesn’t exist yet, but hopefully it will soon.
“Objects are so important in my photographs.”
Often times when we watch a film, there’s a clear distinction between what is real and what is fantasy — in terms of the world we live in and the worlds depicted on screen. However, if one were to step back and watch their own lives through a film, we would begin to view our social structure along with the the seemingly mundane phenomena as bizarre. What is your approach to framing the world and what messages do you aim to convey?
I love putting a big bright theatrical spotlight onto the things we may consider as boring or familiar. There’s no overt ‘messages’, it’s just my own sense of humor and point of view.
How about your current exhibition at Jeffrey Deitch. What was the process like from earliest concept to execution?
I have wanted to exhibit for a long time, I’d spent the last seven years creating two photo books that were never intended to be viewed on a small scale. Women was essentially a project of film stills from movies that don’t exist. The specific details within those images like toast popping, a dead plant or a mysterious background character were intentionally placed in the scene and are only really noticeable when being viewed on a larger scale. Similarly with HELLO, My Name Is…, the details such as the texture of the skin, prosthetic hands, individually placed eyebrow hairs or tiny purple thread-veins really only stand out when an 80×60” portrait is looking down at you.
Objects are so important in my photographs, so when I found out the exhibition was going ahead Jeffrey and I had a conversation about the importance of this ‘not feeling like a photo show’. This was exactly the kind of encouragement I needed to consider ways that I could bring physicalities from the photographs to life. These took the form of a piece of breeze block wall from The Valley, a rotating dry cleaning and airport conveyor belt, dirty cinema seats sticky with chewing gum, a miniature motel featuring a tiny male character watching hours of cartoons. Also Carole from the book Women melting on a sun lounger and Jeff, my favorite character from HELLO, My Name is… sitting as a permanent visitor of the gallery.
The execution of this new work was probably the most challenging. It was becoming increasingly stressful and financially intimidating to realize all of the ideas, but once I had them I really didn’t want to compromise and lose anything. I put everything I had into the show and genuinely have no regrets in doing so.
“It’s so impressive when something beautiful can be created out of nothing, that’s real talent.”
Is there a particular subject or theme that interests you at the moment?
Anything that looks great and is cheaply made, grindhouse style. It’s so impressive when something beautiful can be created out of nothing, that’s real talent. Brian De Palma once said in an interview that ‘visual storytelling has gone out of the window’. He was referring to the dark digital movies made today and how the narrative seems to have overridden the visuals. I’m interested in noticing artists who push against this and bring back the importance of visuals to their work.
How would you define beauty?
Having character and not being boring.
What excites and scares you the most about the world today?
I’m excited by the future; what I’m going to make and the people I’m going to meet. I’m scared for the future of the environment. I was on set last week and literally everything was wrapped in plastic, plastic cups, plastic forks, plastic knives, plastic containers, plastic wrapped masks. The sanitary officer was spraying chemicals near the food to make it ‘sanitary’. This over-cautious attempt to deflect us from getting sick is scary to me as it seems like a short-sighted attitude towards the bigger picture that we are totally fucking up our environment.
Photos: Joshua and Charles White. Courtesy of Nadia Lee Cohen and Jeffrey Deitch.
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