Growing up on a farm in the countryside, Nadia Lee Cohen always hated dressing up and secretly dreamed of being a boy. But these days she oozes feminine allure. A quick click on her Instagram and you'll find the blonde bombshell in a variety of stylised poses, reminiscent of a 50s Hollywood starlet but with a contemporary cool twist. However, it is the iconic women she captures in her stills and moving image work that is making Nadia a name for herself . At once, familiar and yet totally surreal, Nadia's images blur the boundaries between fantasy and reality, the animate and inanimate. With references ranging from Marilyn Monroe to McDonald's, Hitchcock to Divine, the world Nadia creates defy logic, while the women she portrays appear at once objectified and yet empowered. Currently working on her first photobook, 100 Naked Women - a series of subversive nude portraits of women she found online - we catch up with the artist to talk sex, censorship and the female form.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
Female dominant, colourful, something I have previously imagined, and something perhaps not everyone will like.
What are you trying to do with your work?
Create physical forms of what I'm imagining in my head.
Your work references numerous films, where did this interest in cinema come from?
There was a very particular point when I discovered some specific movies that set the tone for everything I like now. Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Kids, Gummo, Pink Flamingos, Buffalo 66, Korean horror films, there are too many to list. The Shining is a particular film I always mention because it really did make me feel very strange when I saw it for the first time, If I was a boy I probably would have had a confused awkward boner.
Your work blurs the boundary between the real and the artificial, the alive and inanimate, could you elaborate on this?
I get bored with an image if it's just 'nice', I always want it to say a little more and push it to be a little darker. Perhaps the way to describe it is a play on the uncanny, the sets and the characters that feature are always familiar as that's how the audience relates to the content. However, I try and introduce something slightly 'off' into what is recognizable in order to change the mood and test the viewer's sense of certainty. This isn't always a conscious decision, I'm pretty sure it's a result of all the morbid shit I've crammed into my head.
Why the emphasis on plasticity and mannequin like features?
It is very easy to puncture something we associate with perfection.
What was the idea behind 100 Naked Women?
I shot a friend following her break up with a boyfriend predominantly to make her feel good about herself, and seeing how liberated she felt after the experience was the initial driving force behind the project. The series has progressed into a response to 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 naked girls, inspiration imagery or even photographs of myself. I was driven to proceed with the 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.
What do you think your work says about women? Are you pandering to male notions of objectification or do you see your work as empowering the female form?
I hope that my work promotes positive female nudity rather than objectification. There is a lot of academic debate around this subject and obviously my work cannot escape this.Post feminism is associated with women taking control of their own self-image rather than being objectified by men. I always try to inject a touch of irony and humour into my photos to promote non-sexual images that carry a narrative.Someone once told me my photos are more for men than women, I've thought about that a lot and often wondered how either sex feels towards them. My aim is to produce striking imagery using unconventional models, locations and props in contrast to those witnessed on a daily basis within media images. At first glance, my work may be reminiscent of a time dominated by male objectification. I choose to photograph and portray these eras through my sets and styling, because to me they are aesthetically pleasing. The way I photograph the women turns the idea of this quaint association on its head. Centrally focused, and powerful in the frame the females in these staged sets could never be described as passive, even if they are crying, to me they never appear weak.
What do you look for when casting women in your work, particularly for your nude series?
A powerful woman I respect, comfortable in her own skin, often with an expressive face that will resemble the character I have previously imagined.
There's a strong sexual undercurrent to your work.
An amazing psychic porn star lady from Vegas that I shot once told me, 'Nadia you're a very sexual person but it's all inside your head'.
There's a lot of references to big brands and consumerism, what are you trying to say here?
Firstly, the aesthetic of bold graphics just makes me happy, which might be why I love America so much. Secondly, there are a lot of dark and negative connotations buried within big brands and consumerism that amuse me; I guess I use these associations as a parody within my work.
Your Instagram is very stylised, and could almost be an extension of your work, but this time substituting the mannequin-like women with an image of yourself - is this conscious?
Instagram is a modern development of self-portraiture. I think about and live my work everyday, so I'm not sure whether that makes it conscious or unconscious.I enjoy Instagram; it's the perfect platform to play weird dress up (as long as I comply with the rules).
What are you working on at the moment?
Naked women, constantly! I've seen so many vaginas. I really want to finish this book! That's literally all I want right now. Photo books are special, they're something I have always loved to own, so to have mine finished alongside the exhibitions and release I think will make me super proud that I've completed a project that ambitious.
Text Tish Weinstock
Photography Nadia Lee Cohen