Welcome to the mad, mad world of Nadia Lee Cohen, where beauty and abject weirdness are one and the same. The 27-year-old British photographer, filmmaker, and self-portrait artist has been mining for Americana since discovering the likes of William Eggleston and Cindy Sherman as a teen. And, in the dystopian present, she’s found gold.
Her photos, which often take inspiration from cult films like Pink Flamingos, The Shining and Blue Velvet, pulse with the kind of cinematic quality that is rare in the Instagram age. “I plan every detail like an insane person,” she says. “My set girls get very frustrated with me when I feel I need a particular type of egg box, or something that seems so irrelevant.” But in Cohen’s, case, details are often where strangeness thrives. Take, for instance, her recent video for American–Colombian singer–songwriter Kali Uchis’ single, “After the Storm,” during which Uchis; Tyler, the Creator; and Bootsy Collins navigate a latter-day Pee-wee’s Playhouse, complete with singing chia pets and animatronic wigs.
Though Cohen often fantasized about being a boy while she was growing up on a farm in rural England, her self-portraits are inextricably linked to female identity, often transposing her subjects with her own image. Recently, she posed as a gunslinging saloon girl, a lingerie-clad vampire, and the devil—each oozing the kind of exaggerated femininity we’ve become so thirsty for. “I am trying to create physical forms and narratives of what I am imagining in my head.” As for the result, she describes her aesthetic as “not something everyone will like.”
Cohen’s pastoral upbringing does little to explain her fascination with kitsch, though she suggests it gives her “an outsider’s perspective,” now that she’s L.A.-based. While studying at the London College of Fashion, Cohen travelled to the U.S. to photograph landscapes on a Master’s scholarship, and the rest, as they say, is history. “The current social climate is so insane that it almost feels as though we’re in a movie,” she says. “I find that darkness quite inspirational, and I feel great art tends to emerge out of oppression.” To wit, Cohen’s high-gloss surrealism has landed her gigs with Miu Miu, Katy Perry, and the cover of Hunger Magazine starring Elizabeth Olsen. This spring, a solo exhibit of her work will open in Malaga, Spain, before travelling Europe.
It doesn’t seem like a stretch to crown Cohen this generation’s John Waters (with a little bit of Lana Del Rey in there for good measure), which seems fitting as she grew up watching his counterculture flicks. As for the obvious difference-that Cohen has yet to direct a full-length feature—she’s not far behind.