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She cites kissing Danny Trejo as one of the highlights of her career. But don’t be fooled because Nadia Lee Cohen has accomplished a lot in a very short time. After winning the Better Lives Award in 2014, the British photographer’s career has skyrocketed, landing international campaigns and big commissions from brands and publications alike. With a unique sense of humour and gaze, she moved to Los Angeles, “a more dramatic place” according to her, where she’s inspired by the exaggerated looks, theatrical environment, and cinematic locations.

From the murder of Pamela Anderson at a house party in the middle of nowhere to wax-faced women dying to achieve beauty ideals, Nadia presents the female form “in all shapes and sizes”. But not as a critique, since she doesn’t get involved in judgement; she basically wants that “each image suggests that a story is about to unfold”. To achieve so, she has jumped into strangers’ backyards dressed as a rabbit, collected badges from store workers, and even lived a near-death experience. Recently, she has presented Not A Retrospective, a massive solo exhibition at La Térmica in Málaga (Spain), and is currently working on finishing her photo book of one hundred nude women. We talk to her in-between cities about beauty standards, Danny Trejo, and where to get the best cheeseburger in Los Angeles.

Your self-portraits present a wide range of fictional characters to the viewers. You have embodied many: from Nic, the local town goth (for Dazed Beauty), to a glamorous ‘rabbit’ breaking into other people’s backyards in Easter (for Office magazine). Do you feel self-portraiture has helped you to grow and learn as a multimedia artist by experimenting with various techniques?
I don’t think I would have initially been interested in my own face to photograph, so with the aid of makeup, wigs and prosthetics, the possibilities of transformation are endless, which means more ‘local town goths’ to look forward to.
Would you say that each character has a bit of Nadia Lee? Masks have the dual function of showing and hiding at the same time.
Absolutely, I feel slightly sentimental towards the characters as they are all representative of people I have encountered. Having spent a short time in their skin is as though they are, in fact, a small extension of me.
In your work, you often depict unusual beauty standards: from hyperbolic makeup to props simulating extreme plastic surgery – I assume moving to Los Angeles contributed even more to that. Did you always have an eye on unusual beauty? Where does this bold aesthetic interest come from?
I like camp, theatre and melodrama, and just photograph what naturally feels more interesting to me. Los Angeles is definitely a more dramatic place as I feel many people come here with the hope of becoming a star; and out of that ambition, eccentric appearances emerge in order to stand out.

Los Angeles seems like the perfect scenery to develop your work, which reminds me of David Lachapelle’s oversaturated pictures as well as Cindy Sherman’s fashionable but sharp self-portraits. What does it offer to you (personally) and to your work that other places/cities don’t?
The United States provides a strangeness that is addictive when seeking inspiration for work. The characters, the iconography, the food – I am magnetically drawn to the artifice of it all, it both repels and exhilarates me simultaneously and I don’t think I will ever tire of that. However, I think it is important to leave often as I can become blind to the landscape and the elements that I find so inspiring if I stay there for too long.
Since you seem to love all things American, could you tell us where can we get the best cheeseburger in town? Or milkshake? Or spending an entire day eating in the Californian city?
You should go to In-N-Out for a cheeseburger. For an entire day: breakfast at Sqirl, lunch at KazuNori, and dinner at Sperenza.
Female characters play an important role in your work. Women appearing in your photos and videos show fragility and strength at the same time, which creates an air of nostalgia and uncertainty. How do you get to the midpoint of these two concepts?
I try to ensure that each image suggests that a story is about to unfold. I am drawn to the melancholy in narrative, and although my models are generally perceived to be bold and central in the frame, at times I will encourage them to juxtapose anxious, thoughtful or concerned expressions in order to convey the concept of vulnerability that exists within all of us.
As a woman, how do you feel about ideals of perfection related to femininity? Your work tackles this ‘issues’ but it doesn’t completely seem like a critique.
As women, this is something we are confronted with each day; there is a constant pressure to strive for perfection in the world we inhabit. As an artist, this is something that interests me and I sometimes choose to play upon in my work. I want to present the female form in all shapes and sizes, and it is up to the viewer if they wish to critique on this. I wouldn’t want to inflict strong opinions on what message the viewer should be receiving but urge them to apply their own subjectivities.

Your work is constantly changing, from the characters you invent to the settings they’re placed in. But overall, it has a cohesion and coherence that makes it instantly recognizable. Do you feel it changes much depending on your personal mood, the music you’ve been listening to lately, or a film you may have watched? Or do you always have this recurrent philosophy/vision you always go back to?
Honestly, even if I try and make them look different, the photos just always come out looking like that.
Tell us a funny anecdote while on set, or a remarkable experience when working.
We had a near-death experience at a shoot in Joshua Tree. It’s a long story but it involves my hairstylist, stylist, two meth addicts and two dogs.
Instagram is vital for many people nowadays. Even though it’s thought as a ‘window to reality’, to our daily lives, it’s become a sort of television instead – so, mixing both reality and fiction, not really knowing how to differentiate the two. And that causes many problems and confusion (related to mental health, for example, since we can’t stop comparing ourselves to others, especially teenagers). This sort of ‘fake life’ has a lot to do with our society’s values and behaviour, and also with your work, I would say. Could you reflect a bit on social media, fiction vs reality, and how do all these sum up in your pieces?
There is such a darkness to it all. I heard some school kids chatting the other day and they were just scrolling down somebody’s feed saying, ‘she’s ugly’, ‘she’s pretty’, etc.; it made my stomach turn as it makes bullying so much easier. The feeling of inferiority is the unfortunate negative aspect of Instagram, but as long as you recognize it’s artifice and understand it is a constructed reality, then I think it can be a positive tool to curate imagery that shows your interests and persona.

Since you expose part of your life and your work through social media, where do you draw the line between what’s public and what’s private?
Wouldn’t it defeat the object of privacy to answer this question?
You won the National Portrait Gallery’s Taylor Wessing Photography Prize in 2012 at the age of 22. And since then, your career has skyrocketed, having worked with incredible people, publications, and institutions. Now, you’re presenting the exhibition Not a Retrospective in Malaga. What would you say has been your biggest accomplishment so far?
Kissing Danny Trejo.
The direction of the new campaign for Mac Cosmetics is one of your latest works, where the products are shown as part of the airplane safety instructions from the flight attendants. What’s your next destination? Are you into something new lately?
I’m answering these questions on the train to Paris right now. I’m travelling constantly for the next month, which gets exhausting. But in between, I’m working on getting closer to finalizing my photo book of a hundred nude women.

Words
Marta Romero

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