A Fashion Photographer Hunts Down ‘Ugly-Pretty’

Photo: Nadia Lee Cohen

The 22-year-old photographer Nadia Lee Cohen may still be in her last year of school at London College of Fashion, but that hasn’t stopped her from already receiving noteworthy accolades, including the Taylor Wessing Prize at the National Portrait Gallery for her provocative photo American Nightmare (kinda NSFW).

And, like Alex Prager before her, Nadia fills her sets with vintage regalia, saturates them with color, and even counts William Eggleston among her idols. Since she’s still on her way to the top, the fashion student funds her Americana-inspired shoots with student loan money, and struggles with building her sets on a shoestring budget. The Cut caught up with the photographer about her childhood dreams, school-work balance, and her particular skill at getting people to undress. Plus, a look at her recent work.

Tell us a little bit about your childhood. Any early signs that you were destined to be a fashion photographer?
I grew up on a farm, so not really anything to do with fashion. My mom is actually a collector — she does it as a hobby — loads of antiques and our house is just rammed with all this old stuff, and I think that’s where I got a love for nostalgia from: my parents. I’ve always loved clothes, I love dressing up myself, and I go to fashion college, so I think that’s where the fashion element comes in.

What did you want to do as a little kid?
I think every kid wanted to be a vet. I still love animals, but I don’t think that’s for me … I’m a bit squeamish.

You’re still in school. How has it been balancing your career and workload at the same time?
At school, I don’t think I would work unless I’m assigned things. I’m really slow at planning shoots on my own. I’m just in my last year now, but the money is good for that. The loan money itself at the moment is what’s paying for doing shoots and stuff because they cost so much, locations and things like that.

Do you consider yourself a fine artist or fashion photographer?
You know what? I really don’t know. Hopefully someone else is going to define that for me because I don’t really know what category I fall into. I do think because I like to create one picture at a time rather than editorials, maybe more fine art.

Which photographers do you look up to?
I love William Eggleston. I love his composition, colors. He was like the only early one, all that Americana. I’m obsessed with that. And Cindy Sherman — I just love her. Her work is important to me.

There are some similarities between your work and Alex Prager in terms of content. How do you feel about the comparison?
I like her work a lot, I think that mine’s more kind of fashion-based than that. But I like the kind of ugly-pretty thing. I don’t necessarily tend to work with model-models, I like people that look slightly interesting. I like Diane Arbus, and people like that.

Speaking of models, you have some pretty unique ones.
Most are friends, and people that I will see and think that they have kind of a period-looking face. I like people that have got kind of quirky faces. I’ve asked people on the train a couple of times [to model] if I like them — like on the tube in London — which is a bit awkward.

You also get people of all shapes and sizes to undress. How do you go about that?
Well the one woman I photographed who is the largest lady, she was absolutely fine. She says I was the first female to photograph her, because she does quite a lot of fetish stuff. For me to photograph her in a nonsexual way, I think she likes that because she’s mostly been photographed by men. She’s a model. I loved photographing her, she’s brilliant.

Where do you think your fascination with Americana comes from?
I think it’s films that I’ve watched. It’s got to be the photographers I like, all the props I collect. My house is literally jammed with all this stuff. I need to get rid of it. I’ll see something on film, take a screenshot, and see color. The color is important. I think there were a lot of saturated colors back then. Also, I love all the American music from the fifties or sixties. If I’m editing or looking through pictures and I can hear the music that goes with them and picture what that situation would be, that does help me a lot.

Is there a dream location for you to shoot?
I basically just scout for old sixties and seventies houses, mostly in England. I love the houses that had all the garish wallpaper and carpets. It’s so hard to find them. There are probably 1,000 old people still with houses like this that haven’t changed them, but they don’t know I literally want to shoot [their homes] so much. The dream place to shoot would be Elvis’s Graceland. That place is just amazing.

Click below for a [slightly NSFW] look at her work.