Photographer Nadia Lee Cohen transforms into eclectic characters inspired by thrifted nametags

Photographer Nadia Lee Cohen transforms into eclectic characters inspired by thrifted nametags

Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

Fast-food worker Jeff is barrel-chested, heavily eyebrowed and mustached. He’s got a campaign badge for former US President Richard Nixon, keeps his antacid pills on hand, and he owns what might be the smallest ever “World’s Greatest Dad” trophy. In a video clip, he smokes a cigarette, speaking with a southern drawl. “You know those folks that go to Paris or Rome, fly back, get off the airplane and kiss the ground, so pleased to be on American soil?” Hey breaks. “Well I do that when I get home on Friday. My house, my home, my yard, my weekend.”

But gruff, small-town Jeff doesn’t actually exist — he’s one of 33 personas portrayed by the British fashion photographer and director Nadia Lee Cohen, who created them based on her collection of thrifted name tags.

In “Hello, My Name Is,” which Cohen published as a book last year, the artist transforms into each fictional person with the help of makeup and prosthetics, then photographs two portraits — one of herself in character, and another of the possessions they might own. The work is featured at Cohen’s solo exhibition at Jeffrey Deitch in Los Angeles, including new video clips for each character, along with a conveyor belt of the collected props and clothes. (The show also includes works from the striking cinematic series “Women,” featuring Alexa Demie and Charli XCX among its subjects).

The cast of characters includes Brenda, a store attendant who reads romance novels and collects Elvis memorabilia; Diane, an ear-piercing specialist who loves Billy Idol and has a healthy dose of teenage disillusionment with the world; and Teena, a bouffant-sporting Pizza Hut worker who says in her video clip that the strong woman she admires in her life is herself.

Nadia Lee Cohen’s self-portrait series imagines 33 different characters and their posessions based on nametags she collected at thrift shops and flea markets. Credit: Nadia Lee Cohen/Jeffrey Deitch

In department store worker Claudia’s collection of personal items, she has a pink VHS tape to improve her golf game, a single chicken cutlet bra insert, and a wide white prize ribbon from an unnamed 1982 event. She wears her hair short and feathered and poses in a polished red skirt suit with matching nails. In her video, Claudia laments, in a posh British accent, that a new coworker has begun to copy her style.

“One day I said, ‘sorry, with all due respect, this has to stop. It’s never going to work. You just don’t have the features,'” Cohen says as Claudia. “I think it broke her heart.”

Gallery director Melahn Frierson says it’s the “humanistic quality that they all inhabit” that makes each imagined character so engaging.

“I think there’s some characters that might be more likable to people, but they’re all so relatable,” she said. “There’s characters that remind you of family members or friends you’ve encountered.”

She is particularly drawn to how Cohen toys with the line between artifice and candor. Instead of the carefully crafted depictions of real lives that play out on social media, Cohen does the reverse, aiming for vignettes of genuine honesty from each imagined person. They are envious and proud and insecure and awkward, with their interior lives captured in the brevity of two images and a 30-second video clip.

“They have no filter and I think that’s what’s amazing. When you see her acting out each character they’re just so unapologetically themselves, which I think is so refreshing,” Frierson said.

And though each person has clues to the era or place through Cohen’s playful styling and accents — representing both the US and UK between the 1960s and ’90s — they can’t quite be placed, defying easy caricature.

“With each character, she really does connect with and care about (them),” Frierson said. “She’s very protective, which I think shows as well.”

Hello, My Name Is” is on view at Jeffrey Deitch in Los Angeles through August 13.

Video credits: Courtesy of the artist and Jeffrey Deitch, Los Angeles.


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