L.A. photographer Nadia Lee Cohen has been collecting the name badges of people she meets in stores and drive-thrus for years. In a new shoot, she transforms herself into these people.
You know that creepy feeling you get when your life reminds you of a film or TV show? Because we're so saturated by the media that often reality looks more like what we see on screen than the other way around? Because the symbolism of advertising is so ubiquitous, we can no longer tell the difference between what is advertising and what isn't? Well, that uncanny feeling is likely what you will experience when you look at photographer and filmmaker Nadia Lee Cohen’s work.
This is not an accident; Cohen deliberately draws from the semantics of advertising and of cult movies, as well as from the architecture of Americana – eerie empty swimming pools, carpeted rooms shot in 70s technicolour and pulpy crime scenes. On first glance, her visual language is comfortingly familiar, but on second glance, unsettling. It's easy to see why she cites director David Lynch as a reference – the glamorous women she photographs are usually decaying in some way, the LA backdrops somehow rendered sinister.
A graduate of London College of Fashion, British-born Cohen developed her visual style under the influence of her first trip to LA around five years ago and quickly decided to relocate there. As well as shooting editorial, Cohen has turned her hand to big brand campaigns, like the brilliant female heist story she shot for Miu Miu AW16, and to directing music videos, like Kali Uchis' After The Storm and DRAM, for Gilligan ft. A$AP Rocky and Juicy J.
When we asked Cohen to create a shoot for Dazed Beauty, she decided to share with us a project she's been cooking up for a while, transforming herself into a fantasy version of the real life characters that satellite her life. Shot in a studio, the Cindy Sherman-esque series sees Cohen embody these people not just aesthetically, but in their very being; she thinks like them and collects their possessions too. Below, we talked to Cohen about how the lucky five characters were selected, what she got out of becoming them, and how they fit into the trajectory of her work more broadly.
Your work is so LA, I think some people forget or don’t know that you’re British. Where did you grow up? What do you miss most about it?
Yes definitely very British, otherwise I would be a very cynical American. I grew up on a farm in the British countryside; I miss my family first and foremost but following that I miss very minute British details like tea shops run by old ladies, mass moaning and Mr Kipling. Sort of everything Martin Parr has captured about Britain.
Who was the first person you found beautiful?
You know what, honestly I think it was Paris Hilton or Donatella Versace, I was utterly obsessed with a tanned blonde and they seemed to epitomise this in the early 2000s; I had a diary plastered with sellotaped images of them to the front of it like some kind of weird shrine.
You moved to LA four years ago – would you have had the same career if you stayed in the UK?
Aesthetically, I can say with certainty that it wouldn’t have looked the same. LA for me makes it very uncomplicated to photograph and capture things as most of the films and photography I am inspired by were shot here so it’s kind of a ready-made set, plus there is no other light like it in the world.
If you weren’t an artist what do you think you would you be doing?
I would have fancied myself as a crime scene photographer, I am morbidly fascinated but hugely squeamish so I’m not sure how that would pan out.
You’ve talked about being a film buff a lot – what films and characters that you came across growing up shaped your aesthetic as an artist?
The first films that shaped me were these, in order. The first was The Shining; I watched it on the floor of my friend's parents' living room. It gave me a feeling as though someone had just woken me from a coma, I had never seen anything more perfect and still. Nothing matches up to Kubrick’s ability to combine such visually striking and beautiful imagery with a genuinely terrifying plot. Kubrick makes it feel very real and this representation of fiction is something I feel he executed flawlessly.
The second was Gummo; I watched it on my teenage boyfriend's laptop. I had watched American Beauty prior to watching this movie and Gummo was like an enjoyable punch in the face to what I knew of the American suburb represented in cinema. The characters captivated me more than any film I’d ever seen because they were real, they reminded me of family I have in Ohio and I’d never really seen these kinds of people put under a magnifying glass in the form of a movie before. The raw honesty of these characters and the intricate attention to detail in the way Korine presented them is something that I’m sure will continue to inspire me.
Last but not least was Pink Flamingoes by John Waters, I remember watching it again immediately after I had finished it for the first time, and I thought ‘what the fuck have I just watched? I need to watch it again’. Divine is a goddess in that film, she epitomises freedom for me and I feel there is a small part of her in almost every character that I like to imagine.
What are the differences between British attitudes toward beauty and American attitudes to beauty, in your experience?
From my experience I think different and unusual features are embraced more frequently in the UK; if someone has fucked up teeth it can be considered beautiful, whereas in the US people might just think you’re on crystal meth.
A lot of your images kind of capture beauty gone wrong – a naked, tan-lined woman next to a slightly overdone chicken, an unexpectedly crooked smile - what are you trying to say or do with these works?
Honestly, these are the people I find interesting, mostly based on characters I have seen around LA or in the small towns of Britain. My friends say my eyes light up when an unusual looking person enters the room; I’m basically just re-creating my favourite characters. This often comes up as a question in my general work in which it has been suggested as though I’m photographing “a load of freaks”. This, for me, says more about the viewer. My general work really isn’t a considered social comment, just what I like and what naturally feels more interesting to me.
Has anything ever gone wrong for you, beauty-wise?
Oh God, how long do you have! I tend to do this thing when I have an event coming up where I’ll try something new; which is always a BIG mistake. This has happened countless times, but I’ll share with you a couple of the most recent...
I had a screening recently in LA and decided to have a spray tan, something I haven’t done since I was around 14 years old. I asked for the darkest possible shade and this resulted in a hybrid of David Dickinson and the woman from Something About Mary; I then spent the next two days scrubbing my skin raw and googling whether skin bleach was bad for you. On another recent occasion, I wanted lighter brows, so I bought industrial bleach and bleached them. It looked awful so then I dyed them darker, I left the dye on too long and they turned into black sharpie lines resembling Groucho Marks or that 90’s British politician Alistair Darling.
Your Nowness film A Guide to Indulgence and some of your other work is about the horror unrealistic beauty ideals can wield. Is that a personal topic for you?
Absolutely, 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 often play on that in my work; like in the film you have mentioned A Guide to Indulgence.
What would you say is your own biggest indulgence in life?
I have an obscene amount of what I like to call ‘auntie’ shoes, they’re like slip-on mules, the pointier the better – my favourite thing to do is go round charity shops and hunt down the ugliest auntie shoes I can find.
Talking of collecting things, talk me through the shoot for Dazed Beauty.
Well, I started collecting name badges around five years ago, partly because I liked the aesthetic of them; but mainly for the fact that these were very personal items that may seem insignificant, yet on inspection can actually be extremely symbolic of someone’s character. I would ask workers at drive-throughs and in stores if they would part with their badges and surprisingly a lot of them obliged. The intention of this was to eventually create a series of images in which I imagined the person's character and embodied them physically and mentally for a short space of time. Then I compiled personal objects I thought they might have, imagined their lifestyle and what they liked to do in their spare time.
The five portraits of me as these characters each have an accompanying still life image of small somewhat insignificant objects that symbolise each person. For me, it is almost reminiscent of when someone has died and we look at their belongings in a much more tender way than when they were alive as each mundane object represents them, and in turn, becomes poignant to observe.
What do you personally get out of playing other people? What can being someone else teach us about ourselves?
These are all representative of the people I have encountered. I think I’m quite an empathetic person, and when reflecting on the small insignificant traits of people I feel a poignancy that makes me want to protect their respective characters. I tend to empathise with anyone I encounter that might resemble these people. Having spent a short time in their skin, I feel as though they are, in fact, a small extension of me.
And finally, if you had to live as one of these characters forever, who would it be?
Barb! Even after her extensive facelift, three breast enlargements, rhinoplasty and brow lift, she without a doubt felt the most natural to me.
Photographer: Nadia Lee
Photo assistant: David Lopez
Stylist: Mar Peidro
SFX make up: Annie Tagge using ‘Out of Kit’
SFX assistant: Ruthy Hernandez
Hairstylist: Sami Knight at Starworks using Bumble & Bumble
Hair assistant 1: Rena Calhoun
Hair Assistant 2: Tiyago Goya
Nail artist: Yoko Sakakura
Set Design: Brittany Porter
Set design Assistant: Daniel Mutton
Film: Aaron Sinclair
Production assistant: Lilia Gabbro
Special thanks to The Dream Factory LA