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© Nadia Lee Cohen

Features / International Women's Day

Nadia Lee Cohen on how she became Nadia Lee Cohen

Photography by

Nadia Lee Cohen

Rather than contributing to the inundated bank of imagery produced by perfectly proficient photographers shooting perfectly beautiful women, Nadia Lee Cohen offers up something different. Known for her cinematic photography that combines high glamour with the surreal, Nadia’s forceful body of work sees strong characters shot through an otherworldly lens. Delivering image after image with panache, she fulfils every commission (not to mention her personal work) with magnetism. And though some may wonder “what on earth is going on in this image?” here is a photographer executing her originality from all corners, regardless of whether that may or may not fit in with modern standards of beauty.

“The world I photograph and create doesn’t reside in the same world that we live in,” Nadia tells It’s Nice That. “It does not share or possess the same beauty norms, politics or social values” and, as a consequence, what she creates is “a much freer place to live in”. Whether she’s shooting a commercial for Miu Miu or reimagining Pamela Andersen being fatefully shot to death by a blonde in a baby-pink two-piece, Nadia’s stylised vision of Lynchian haute-couture is full of enigma and impact.

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© Nadia Lee Cohen

Nadia’s ability to construct new worlds has developed from the fact that she is “predominantly influenced by cinema”, and views “photography as a way of communicating a still moment from a story, frozen in time”. The Taylor Wessing Prize winner points out that “regardless of the before, or after, an image can exert its own unique strength.” Though her work often contains rubber-skinned, mannequin-like bodies, there is not one correct way of interpreting Nadia’s photography. Instead, she prefers to leave all lines of communication open: “I don’t want to spell out the feelings or emotions that the viewer should gain from my images,” she explains. Instead, we have to think for ourselves.

In her first major solo exhibition Nadia Lee Cohen. Not a Retrospective, the photographer, now based in LA, presents a number of her widely acclaimed works at La Térmica in Málaga. Currently showing until mid-May this year, the exhibition focuses on Nadia’s “endless fascination with Americana and conventional life in suburbia”. With a hint of Stepford Wives melancholia, the show embodies Nadia’s past five years of observations living in America. Since moving to LA, the city has provided a wealth of inspiration that has formed the basis of her recent photographic art. As she puts it to us, “LA is a strange place that has characters like no other city.”

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© Nadia Lee Cohen

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© Nadia Lee Cohen

“The US provides a strangeness that is addictive,” continues Nadia. “I am magnetically drawn to the artifice of it all, it repels and exhilarates me simultaneously.” She actually grew up, by contrast, on a farm in rural England and subsequently went on to study photography at London College of Fashion. When asked about her creative influences as an adolescent, she says, “I can’t say that I loved fashion, as I dressed like a boy until I hit my teens.” However, she does point out: “I lived in the remote countryside surrounded by fields, so I think my imagination did have the opportunity to expand.”

Nadia remembers how she would draw hundreds of cartoon action women from around the age of six to 11 that still inform her practice today (as seen through her latest campaign for the fashion brand GCDS). Other than that, she tells us about a more unexpected influence on her photography career. “My dad had a camera on him all the time. He would capture some real crap that I seemed to take a liking to.” As a child, she would collect these “terrible Kodak prints” in a red photo album, ironically naming them “compelling photographs”. But compelling as they were to the young Nadia, the photographs captured things like “a blurry dead fish, the neck of a toilet brush” and “a dirty car wheel”. And despite the rather arbitrary subjects, the photo album went on to spark a poignant curiosity in the young Nadia that continues to drive her photography today: capturing beautiful aspects of the mundane.

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© Nadia Lee Cohen

“I have always found humour in the mundane,” she says, referring back to this unlikely muse. When she first encountered photographers like Cindy Sherman, Martin Parr and William Eggleston in a “defining moment” at art school, her interest proceeded to deepen and in her career thus far, she has continuously explored the allure of the banal. However, she doesn’t strive to express this overtly, or anything else for that matter, in her work. She leaves the photographed storylines up for debate, which simply adds to the mystery of the artwork.

Purely in terms of visuals, Nadia’s photography can be seen as melodramatic in its richly over-saturated hues. “When I was growing up,” she says, “I was heavily influenced by the theatrical elements of fashion and by people who pushed their looks to the extreme.” In a similar way, whether she’s directing an ad campaign or taking self-portraits in various guises, Nadia’s oeuvre enforces a visual extremity, often paying particular attention to the emotion of the subject.

“I remember being utterly obsessed with Donatella Versace and Paris Hilton during the early 2000s,” says Nadia, who bought a diary and sellotaped images of the celebrities to the front, “celebrating their mahogany tans”. The traces of these childhood icons are still detectable in Nadia’s work today – brilliant sheens of platinum blonde hair, Versace-esque silk shirts, dazed-looking women with glowing skin as if the paparazzi’s flash has just bounced off it.

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© Nadia Lee Cohen

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© Nadia Lee Cohen

Beyond Donatella and Paris, Nadia’s definition of beauty involves “a large brain full of wit and intelligence”. In the early days of her career, she built entire sets herself, including make-up, hair and props. Now as an established photographer and director, her aesthetic has become embedded within the creative industry’s collective consciousness. In other words, we’re all aware of the signature Nadia Lee Cohen look.

While many of her photographs exude a sense of eeriness through the subjects’ crooked postures and exaggerated mannerisms, she actually learned to convey such a mood by studying film. Applying filmic techniques to her own craft, the movie fan notes how her favourite directors “are able to hold the viewer’s attention without the aid of dramatic action scenes”.

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© Nadia Lee Cohen

Alfred Hitchcock, in particular, has shaped Nadia’s visual artistry. Along with a distinguished use of cinematography and careful colour consideration, the photographer evaluates how “Hitchcock was the master of creating a disquieting effect in a familiar setting. He would achieve this without the use of a single physical object; merely an expression of longing or despair on the subject’s face paired with an extreme close up.”

Comparably, Nadia has drawn on Hitchcock’s mise-en-scène to create her own kind of disconcerting photographic language. Combined with the latest technologies and her recurring themes, she has devised a visual language so hypnotic that corporate campaigns trust her enough to hand over complete creative rein. And even though she’s already established enough to mould commissions into personal works, Nadia intends to take a break from commercial work in the near future to focus on finishing her book of 100 nude women. She ends our interview by saying: “I am also going to isolate myself in the desert and write a film that lasts longer than five minutes.” Whatever’s next for Nadia, we can certainly expect her to continue surprising us with original, alternative representations of women.

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© Nadia Lee Cohen

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© Nadia Lee Cohen

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© Nadia Lee Cohen