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Nadia Lee Cohen, “Diane”, HELLO My Name Is (2021)
Nadia Lee Cohen, “Diane”, HELLO My Name Is (2021)Photography Nadia Lee Cohen

Photographer Nadia Lee Cohen transforms herself into imaginary people

We speak to the photographer about the cast of fascinating strangers that appear in HELLO... My Name Is

As a conduit of pure glamour, everything becomes alluring and fascinating when Nadia Lee Cohen raises her camera in its direction. Be it trashy, mundane, and cheap, or exclusive, luxe, and rare, everything is unutterably transformed when incorporated into her irresistibly cinematic vision.  

Obsessed with what she’s described as the “lurid leftovers of Western consumerism”, Cohen has scoured flea markets, vintage shops, and car boot sales, casting a discerning eye over the artefacts and detritus of modern urban life and reimagining them as the personal effects of a series of make-believe individuals. HELLO My Name Is (published by IDEA) presents revealing vignettes of her fictitious cast of characters, each played by Cohen herself.

Following her acclaimed debut monograph Women (2020), the British-born LA-based photographer continues her exploration of popular culture and its idiosyncrasies. Comparable to the likes of Alex Prager and Cindy Sherman, Cohen is a master of disguise and narrative, able to suspend and distil filmic moments of drama into single stills. Here, with meticulous attention to detail and immaculate prosthetics, Cohen fully inhabits each role. From self-proclaimed ear-piercing specialist Diane, to Camel-smoking, Nixon-supporting sports fan Jeff, she brings each character to life in a series of portraits and arrangements of their belongings. Imagined in exquisite detail, Cohen’s still life images allow us a fascinating insight into the habits, biographies, and proclivities of this collection of curious and compelling individuals. 

As HELLO My Name Is is about to be published as a second edition, we talk to Nadia Lee Cohen about the process of creating the subjects of her latest book, the allure of flea markets and charity shops, and how we’d spend a perfect day in Los Angeles. 

Your photographs depict a gorgeous, stylish, and eccentric world. Please could you introduce us to the landscape, aesthetic, and inhabitants of the world you’ve created in your images? 

Nadia Lee Cohen: Good question, but pretty hard to answer without sounding pretentious. The landscape is similar to when you have a dream and the rooms are slightly larger than usual and you can never see around the corner. The aesthetic is ‘more is more’ and the inhabitants are people you know but you don’t know where from. 

Please could you tell us about the process of creating HELLO My Name Is and forming each character in such minute detail? Where did you begin?

Nadia Lee Cohen: It started with a collection of name badges. I was gathering loads of them and didn’t really know why, aside from that I liked them aesthetically. The more unusual the tag the better. ‘June Rogers, Square dance organiser’ is a firm favourite, though June didn’t actually make it into the book. Anyway, each time I found a new one I just naturally imagined what the person who once owned it might have looked like. Until one day I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to actually see these people?’ So I started the project. 

How much do you know about each imagined backstory? 

Nadia Lee Cohen: A lot now I think. I wanted the characters to speak but I didn’t really know what they’d say. David Owen from IDEA – publisher of Women and HELLO... My Name Is –  is a brilliant writer, we have a very similar sense of humour. I asked him if he would write little anecdotes for each of the characters. I was worried I had asked too much from him or even that I wouldn’t end up liking what he wrote. But 24 hours later he came back with 33 perfect quotes, each one better than the last. These were intended for me to actually speak in the films so I had to learn them like lines. This added so much depth to the backstory of each character that suddenly I had a clear idea of where they were from, what accent they had, if they were shy, overly confident, funny etcetera.

Could you tell us about your quest to find the personal effects featured in the still life shots? What places did you go to locate all these objects? And did you already have a specific idea of what you were looking for? 

Nadia Lee Cohen: I’m genuinely so fascinated by other people’s personal objects, so having an excuse and purpose to go and scour the charity shops, flea markets, and car boots made me feel really content and like I had real purpose. I actually really miss looking for objects and keep seeing things that could have worked. Sometimes I would be looking for something very specific… for example, I needed a postcard of two Pekingese dogs and I went to the Melrose flea market and found a postcard of two Pekingese dogs. That sort of serendipity doesn’t happen very often in my life.

“I’m genuinely so fascinated by other people’s personal objects” – Nadia Lee Cohen

Which characters were you most fond of and why?

Nadia Lee Cohen: I’m fond of all of them but I’ll choose five so I don’t go on for ages. Michael because he reminds me of my brother as a teenager and owns the same Pez dispenser. Big Kat because I felt really happy as her and she perked everyone up at the end of a very long day. Jackie because she looks as though she’s really been through it, yet has somehow retained her grace. Mrs Fisher as she’s just the sort of woman who would lick her hankie and rub it on your cheek when you are a kid – I hated that – and Teena, who is essentially teenage me; with way too much dream matte mousse foundation caked over bad skin and the bottle of Glen’s Vodka that I first got drunk on. 

Whether it be the individuals you chose to shoot for your debut book, Women, or the characters you invented for HELLO… My Name Is, what is it that draws you to the particular subjects that appear in your work? 

Nadia Lee Cohen: Most character inspiration comes from the people around me on a daily basis… I’m drawn towards anyone that approaches their appearance theatrically. I usually spot those people in places like cafes, supermarkets, bus stops, trains, and corner shops.

How would you describe the relationship between artifice and reality in your work? 

Nadia Lee Cohen: They’re holding hands.

What is it about the landscape and culture of Los Angeles that captures your imagination? 

Nadia Lee Cohen: The landscape is very photogenic, architecturally. During the day everything is lit as though someone is holding up a gold reflector and the smog above acts as this flattering filter. At night everything is bathed in the warm glow of tungsten street lamps or different coloured neon lights. It’s very cinematic without trying to be. The culture is a little harder to pinpoint… it isn’t like Paris, London, or NY where you feel the culture immediately when you arrive. It takes a little longer to figure out and has an eerie quality that is exaggerated even further when paired with the lighting of the landscape described above.

If you were to take us on a whistlestop tour of LA, where would we go? 

Nadia Lee Cohen: I’d drag you along early to the Long Beach flea market – it’s the best one. We’d have about an hour to walk around before the sun came out and it got too hot. Then we’d probably be a bit hungry so we’d get some breakfast at Cafe Stella. Then drive to the beach and I’d set up my full blue and white striped frilly beach kit that I’m quite proud of. We wouldn’t swim in the sea because it’s bloody freezing. In the afternoon we’d drive back and get British chocolate from the Laurel Canyon country store – apparently, Mick Jagger insisted they stock it in the 70s. We’d eat that on the way home, get changed and ready to go watch a movie either at Tarantino’s New Beverly cinema or Cinespia at the Hollywood Forever cemetery. After that, we’d get pasta, pizza, and wine at Little Dom’s, head to Chateau Marmont for very late drinks, and finally drive through the winding roads of Mulholland Drive to my favourite lookout point near the fire station. 

Who or what are your enduring sources of inspiration?

Nadia Lee Cohen: Great movies, music, books, and the people I see on a daily basis.  

What are you working on now?

Nadia Lee Cohen: A writing project with my brother, we’ve been working on it for over a year.

And in what direction do you hope your work will develop in the future? 

Nadia Lee Cohen: I hope it develops the way I want it to… but I should probably keep that to myself instead of specifying what that, is in case it doesn’t work out and then this interview lives on the internet forever. 

Do you ever see yourself working with moving image?

Nadia Lee Cohen: I do, but I have no intention of rushing into it. I have been asked to direct certain TV series but I really have no interest in doing that until I have made something entirely my own first. I think it’s better to do it that way around.  

The second edition of Nadia Lee Cohen’s HELLO…My Name Is is published by IDEA and is available from March 5. If you’re in Los Angeles, you can catch her for a book signing at DSMLA