Nadia Lee Cohen’s Alluring, Cinematic Art Comes to Life

The British artist creates her own large-scale version of Los Angeles at Jeffrey Deitch Gallery.

by Isiah Magsino

A portrait of Nadia Lee Cohen
Nadia Lee Cohen photographed by David Lopez

There’s a surrealist flair to the British artist Nadia Lee Cohen’s photography. Whether it’s a blonde, short-haired Jessie Andrews sprawled topless within the confines of a dingy motel, or Kim Kardashian donning her latest line of metallic Skims against the backdrop of a vintage Los Angeles pool, Cohen’s work consistently tells a thought-provoking story. The fun catch, however, is that the cinematic allure to her work gives viewers an opportunity to independently imagine the story’s following scenes.

“Cinema and cinematic photography is still the greatest overall influence,” Cohen tells W. “Though the narrative element of my fashion background still influences everything I do.” This is most apparent in her most recent book series, “Hello my name is…” (Idea Books) which was released last year. In it, the photographer shape shifts into 33 different characters inspired by abandoned name tags that she has collected over the years. There’s “Jeff,” who appears to be a sheriff of some small town during the ’50s, and “Michael” who looks like a lost teenage boy who just passed his driver’s license test. To further illustrate these characters, Cohen photographs a tray of still life images for each. (“Michael” has a police warning ticket and a copy of Playboy’s November 1983 issue.)

This lust for storytelling is also found in her photography book series “Women.” Within the pages, Cohen places her muses in a vintage universe of worn-down motel rooms, suburban L.A. backyards, and even abandoned auditoriums. These women are often naked—or nearly naked—and their hearts are worn on their sleeves: some appear confident, some distressed, some glamorous, and some shy. The background in the images is often as important as the subject, and together, they create a rich marriage of fascination and mystery. Most of the women used within this series are friends of Cohen’s in real life, too: Alexa Demie, Richie Shazam, and Zizi Donohoe, just to name a few.

Despite these hardback works, Cohen says her kind of storytelling was never meant to remain on paper. And, now, for the first time ever, these pieces are on view at the artist’s large-scale solo exhibition at Jeffrey Deitch Gallery in Los Angeles, Hello, my name is... The show is, in a word, an experience. One of her recurring characters, “Carole” manifests as a wax figure on a lawn chair; she seems to have spent too much time in the L.A. sun (or the gallery’s bright lights), as she is completed melted and disfigured. Below, Cohen lets us into her world—now on view IRL until August 13th.

This is your first major solo exhibition in the U.S. Can you share more about your process while sussing out the details of Hello, my name is...?

I had a conversation with Jeffrey very early on about the importance of it not feeling like a photo show. This was the first opportunity I had to show the work in a three-dimensional way, where people could experience isolated physical forms of the objects, characters, and Los Angeles architecture—[all of] which influenced me in the first place. I spoke with my art director, Brittany Porter, about the viewer being able to exist in that fictional yet familiar world. The idea was to be able to look at the characters, hear them speak, and see the textures of Los Angeles like the La Brea Motel, the white breeze block wall from The Valley, or the dirty cinema seats sticky with chewing gum.

Photograph by Charles White, courtesy of the artist

What about now felt like the right time to have your first solo exhibition?

I spent the last seven years making two photo books; I never intended those images to be viewed on a small scale. The background details such as a toast popping, a dead plant, or a mysterious background character were intentionally placed in the scene. They’re only really noticed when looking at them on a larger scale. I also had hours and hours of unseen raw footage from these shoots; I never had the opportunity to show them. I didn’t want to cave into posting them on Instagram and becoming old news after a few scrolls, so I waited. I tried for around a year to find the right space to exhibit and had a Goldilocks experience of galleries either being too small, too commercial or too far away, until I found L.A.’s Jeffrey Deitch.

Let’s talk about the sculptures and setups throughout the show. Who is this person absolutely obliterated on the lawn chair?

The woman on the lawn chair is Carole (silicone & human hair, 2022). She is one of the models from the book “Women,” where she is posing in the Valley at golden hour, 2 minutes before the sun went down. A lot of the time, it’s quite difficult to explain and persuade people into doing these projects before they actually exist, but Carole had such a great attitude when I photographed her that I knew she’d get it; which is why I thought of her as the melted lawn chair lady. She hadn’t been out of the house for two years during Covid, so her first outing was to the sculptor Malina’s studio where she laid out on the chair half-naked and covered in clay with her little dog by her side. She said it was the best day ever.

Photograph by Charles White, courtesy of the artist

I remember when you posted, “Can anyone help make a conveyor belt?” on your Instagram story. I died of laughter.

Ha! That was one of many low points; I discovered that circular conveyors are rarer than something really rare (Google “albino peacocks”). The idea was to attach a circular, TSA-style airport conveyor to a dry cleaning conveyor that rotated the clothes and belongings of the fictional characters from the book “Hello, My Name Is.” That desperate Instagram post came after a phone call with a guy who had promised to sell me the only circular conveyor I’d found in the U.S., and he just broke the news that he’d sold it to somebody else. I cried on the phone with him and called him some bad words.

Photograph by Charles White, courtesy of the artist

You work across several creative disciplines: fashion, art, photography, and music. How would you say they influence each other?

I didn’t stay firmly in the fashion world as I’m not all that interested in shooting the current trends or whether a coat is sitting right. I prefer everything in the photograph to make sense of the story I'm trying to tell, which is probably the reason I started those personal book projects and moved towards filmmaking.

I am hugely influenced by music and sound design from a cinematic standpoint; it’s necessary to bring the film to life. Though I rarely work on music videos as there’s not usually enough time for me to be able to make something I’m truly proud of. The demand for video content is so high, yet the budgets are getting tighter and the client often needs it “yesterday” which is having an adverse effect where quantity outweighs quality. We’re definitely way past the Hype Williams era of the super music video.

You like to create characters, which is no secret. Picture the roles are reversed—which of your qualities would you want an artist to emphasize?

That would be up to the artist. I’d want to see how they saw me.

Onto the Culture Diet questions. What time do you wake up, and what’s the first thing you do?

I like to wake up early and be entirely by myself and quiet for the first hour. I have this thing called “morning brain”—it’s annoying, but it’s the only time I feel like I have any clarity or creativity. It gradually decreases throughout the day until finally, in the evening, it’s in zombie mode and I can’t form a sentence. Living in L.A., you naturally feel behind, as the rest of the world has already finished their day. On a good day (having left my phone in another room) I’ll wake up around 7 AM, make tea, shower, do all my skincare, get dressed, and then finally turn my phone off of airplane mode to deal with everything.


Which books are currently on your bedside table?

Nothing! I can only read when I am either writing or not working on a project. Right now it’s the latter, but the last book I read was “Swag” by Elmore Leonard.

What songs have you had on repeat lately?

I’m currently having a reggae resurgence, I forgot how happy it makes me feel. My first teenage boyfriend introduced me to garage rock and all things punk; this had a huge influence on me across the board. I’m not a fan of chart music, I don’t love radio songs and anything with a [beat] drop makes me feel a bit queasy. In terms of new artists, I love Amyl and the Sniffers—they’re the real deal.

What are some of your favorite museums and galleries?

In Paris, the Palais de Tokyo, and in London, White Cube. When I’m in New York or Los Angeles, of course, Jeffrey Deitch.

Are you an astrology gal?

Who doesn’t love hearing about themselves?