Fine Art Meets Fantasy: Nadia Lee Cohen

Nadia Lee Cohen

Photographer Nadia Lee Cohen’s style is both modern and retro, familiar and yet somehow shockingly new.

Fine-art photographer and filmmaker Nadia Lee Cohen’s still and video images are heavily inspired by the art, cinema and social upheavals of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s in America and her native Great Britain. In particular, this recent Los Angeles transplant focuses on female characters, with her heroines portraying a balance of strength and vulnerability in cinematic images with, as she says, “a darker underlying narrative.”

Cohen prefers to think of her still photographs as uncanny rather than fantasy: “I endeavor to make the sets and characters recognizable, as that’s how an audience relates to the content. I then introduce something which intercepts the familiar and creates a mood that suggests something is a little off. This tests the viewer’s sense of certainty and encourages them to linger longer over an image.”

At age 22, Cohen made the photography world stage with her The Shining-inspired portrait, “American Nightmare,” being part of the National Portrait Gallery’s prestigious Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize exhibition in London.

Cohen has a major social media Instagram presence, which she addresses as its own medium, not just an amalgamation of some of her greatest hits and behind-the-scenes images. Instead, she often “plays dress-up” specifically for Instagram and curates a gallery of her day-to-day inspirations.

Digital Photo Pro: What is it about the self-portrait that has fascinated both you and countless artists before you?

Nadia Lee Cohen: I can’t really speak for other artists, but for me it is the natural element of escapism that self-portraiture brings. I can turn myself into a character. It’s almost like drag for me, as I love to dress up so much. It’s predominantly about living the work I create. I don’t want to be shy behind my imagery, I want to be a part of it.

Digital Photo Pro: Why do you occasionally take on the persona of Ronald McDonald? What does that character symbolize?

Cohen: I’m attracted to anything that is remotely sinister. I find the constant stigma associated with the brand very amusing. It’s continually torn apart with bad press, yet even some of the protagonists have a secret burger every once in a while. I adore the love/hate relationship we have with McDonald’s. The fact they decided that a terrifying life-size clown was the best choice for their mascot is just a bonus for me.

Digital Photo Pro: So commercials sometimes act as inspirations for your narratives in addition to the inspiration you take from movies?

Cohen: The majority of my ideas usually stem from a scene in a film that captures my attention—it could be the composition, the colors, the characters. Sometimes an idea comes to me when listening to music. That’s what happened with my “Tequila” video. I was on the tube in London, and the song came on in my headphones. I just began to visualize a stunning plus-size lady dancing hypnotically to a load of sleazy 1970s strip club attendants—so that’s what I made.

For an image such as the photo with the bear, I wanted the story to have an ambiguous quality where I instigate the narrative and the viewer completes it. Most people have assumed the bear is some sort of sardonic male representation. But who’s to say that it isn’t a female bear, and that if it is a female bear that she couldn’t be equally capable of being unpredictable and ferocious?

Nadia Lee Cohen
Cohen considers her images creative escapism, and likes to play with the role of corporate brands in our lives.

Digital Photo Pro: Do you storyboard out your ideas such as the bear image? How do you turn a concept into reality?

Cohen: I make mood boards and sometimes sketch out exactly how I envisage the final image in terms of composition, expression and mood. This can change as soon as I get on set, though. It’s obviously better to come prepared, but often on the day of the shoot I’ll take a photo that is entirely different to what I had planned and end up liking it even more.

Digital Photo Pro: Who are artists behind some of your visual inspirations?

Cohen: There are so many, but I’ll mention as many as I can! In terms of movies, my go-to inspirations are Kubrick, especially “The Shining,” Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” Harmony Korine’s “Gummo,” David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet,” John Waters’ “Pink Flamingos,” Kenneth Anger, Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, Wim Wenders.

As for photographers, I’m inspired by anything cinematic with a narrative—Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin and Philip-Lorca diCorcia, especially his male prostitute series, “Hustlers.” I also love documentary photography by photographers such as Martin Parr, Richard Billingham and William Eggleston. I was around 16 years old when I discovered the work of these photographers in the school library. Since then I have been fascinated with any form of narrative in photography.

I found that fashion editorial has a very strong storytelling element, therefore I decided to study fashion photography at the London College of Fashion for five years. I still like the narrative freedom that comes with fashion editorials, but, truthfully, I never look to fashion magazines for inspiration now, I’ve always taken a lot more from a scene in a film than anything I’ve ever seen in a magazine.

I’m also hugely inspired by hyperreal sculpture. Duane Hanson’s creations are incredible and inspire a lot of the characters I create, though I’ve yet to see his work in person.

Nadia Lee Cohen
The photographer’s series inspired by The Shining earned Cohen notoriety and allowed her to land more work.

Digital Photo Pro: What qualities do you look for in your models?

Cohen: Confidence, a characterful face, and someone that can act out the part I have previously imagined. I find them mostly through Instagram. I will put out a specific casting and then scroll through whoever responds. I have found some amazing people on there. People tend to be more enthusiastic about the shoot when they have applied rather than when I seek people out through agencies.

Digital Photo Pro: Once you’ve found your models, what equipment are you working with to photographically realize your visions?

Cohen: I shoot with the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, mostly with the Canon 24-70mm or a 50mm lenses. I like the look of shooting subjects close up with the wide angle. For lighting, I’m super basic. When I was in college I used to use two industrial lights from a hardware store. Now I just use any tungsten continuous light. I rarely work with a flash unless it’s for my own personal point of view, meaning when I create images for my social media. For that, I often use a little Samsung NX3000 point and shoot with a flash. I feel the instantaneous quality of a flash complements the nature of Instagram. I don’t use this camera for anything that I want to appear cinematic.

Digital Photo Pro: Social media seems to be an important part of your workflow. How have you been able to use it so effectively? Have you seen direct benefits?

Cohen: I like the instantaneousness of Instagram and the curation element. I don’t consciously use it to try and benefit my workflow, although that’s how many people have found me recently. I think it’s an important platform for any visual artist, as you are able to express small elements of your personality as well as posting about your work.

Nadia Lee Cohen
Much of Cohen’s work is inspired by cinema and characters she sees on the big screen. Colors and composition are often drawn from film.

Digital Photo Pro: What’s the concept behind your “100 Naked Women” project? How are you turning the idea into reality?

Cohen: It was around a time when I was having a slight mental block in creating new work. I needed an idea that I could work on constantly in my spare time and turn into a lengthy series, but it had to be something significant and relevant to what was happening around me.

I photographed a friend following her break-up with a boyfriend predominantly to make her feel good about herself. Seeing how liberated she felt after the experience was the initial driving force behind the project.

The series has progressed into a response for what is happening right now with online female censorship, as this is something very relevant to me and something I constantly have to consider when posting behind-the-scenes photographs from the series, inspiration imagery or even photographs of myself. I was driven to proceed with the project as a book as it has become a documentation and platform in which the modern females involved are not restricted whatsoever in how much of their bodies they choose to reveal to others.

You can find more of Nadia Lee Cohen’s work at and on Instagram @nadialeelee

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