It’s questionable if, during the 80s, when he raised the flag of New York’s underground gore Cinema of Transgression and shot for porn mags, Richard Kern had visualised himself decades later: shooting Instagram-friendly young models and interviewing them about their dreams, aspirations and addictions with the tenderness of a kooky uncle. Kern’s lifelong career is characterised by an unending adaptation to the constantly shifting social patterns of each epoch. What has remained constant is his liberating depiction of young women. He celebrated the girl-next-door concept before it was cool, handing down a legacy for a new generation of artists—like Petra Collins, his muse and protégée—to play with and take a step further through a female lens. Yearning, desire and nostalgia are not only the characteristics of a Richard Kern photograph—they are also the virtues behind his charming personality. After our Skype started, I was feeling safe and relaxed enough (I guess that’s a talent one masters after shooting some hundreds of nude teenagers) to share my own Richard Kern “transcendental” experience.
Stamatia Dimitrakopoulos: When I got this email from Dapper Dan saying, “Hey, can you interview Richard Kern?” I thought, “Wow, the time has come.” To start with a small anecdote, when I was 16, my boyfriend at that time was trying to “educate” me on erotic photography. He started with Araki and Roy Stuart, but I was not intrigued. Then one day he brought me your book, “Action”.
Richard Kern: That’s the porniest thing I’ve made! It’s all shots from porn mags.
SD: That was the exact purpose, I think. This book, in a way, created the structure for my own sexuality. I was a teenager reading Cosmopolitan and all at once the whole idea I had about myself as a woman, how I am perceived, what I have to do in order to be sexually attractive, it all changed. I believe it was this laid-back vibe that your shots had and was so striking to me.
RK: That’s so funny! I hope it is in the interview so that I can read it again later sometime.
SD: The question is, have you ever considered the educational aspect of your work?
RK: No, never! There were girls and guys telling me different stories about every book, but not this one. “Action” was published in 2007; it was after the financial crisis and I needed money badly. Dian Hanson, the editor of erotic books at TASCHEN, used to run some of the porn magazines I had shot for and she knew that I had all this material that I had never used before. So she asked me to go through all these images and this is how this book came up. Eighty percent of the book is shootings for porn magazines that I was doing just for the money. What’s really funny is that, of course, that would be my best-selling book—the one that I did not care much about. I was trying to deny that I am shooting sexual photographs. That’s interesting, though: I heard different stories for different books but never about that book. Did you watch the DVD?
SD: I did.
RK: It’s funny that I get music video jobs and all kinds of weird stuff just from this DVD. For me, it was just a throwaway thing that I did not watch for years, until recently at a show. I remember thinking, “Wow, this is such a weird movie: it’s just sex stuff, it’s crazy.” Anyway, I am glad you enjoyed it.
SD: I am glad you made it. I got a natural vibe from it, something I never get from a Roy Stuart picture, for example.
RK: Yes, I would say that Roy Stuart’s pictures are very lit, but that’s the way you had to shoot for sex magazines, with lots of light. You had to be able to see “everything”; it had to be very clear. I find Roy Stuart’s images very real.
SD: Talking about reality, it is ultimately manifested in your Medicated project that goes beyond the image, expressing a certain kind of concern. Do you think that’s a sign of you growing up?
RK: Haha, no—I wish it was! With Medicated, I finally found a conceptual meaning that has everything in it. It makes people uneasy, it implies sexuality and also has this weird drug aspect. I did a show about it here in New York, which was maybe my favourite. On one wall there were the medicated shots, and on the wall opposite were these doubles that have a photo of a girl with the clothes on and then in the exact same shot she is naked. After this show, I did another one in London with just the Medicated pictures. I still shoot those all the time: since 2010 all these girls are showing their medication. Some people are on a lot of drugs! It’s interesting.
I am also shooting girls with birth control pills. I am trying to shoot every single kind of birth control method, but there are some kinds I can’t get. There is a device that gets implanted in the woman by the doctor. I would love to shoot somebody holding it but I can’t get them and not even fake them. The birth control concept is also kind of creepy and it’s just about sex. In addition to the Medicated project, I have been working on a couple of projects forever and I just haven’t finished yet.
I just interviewed all the models who participated in Medicated, about their hopes and dreams, and I also interviewed some girls that I shot a long time ago, about how their life turned out.
At some point, I will mesh this material into what people are thinking about on the age of modelling. I filmed probably 50 girls for this project. I also started another one about sex: a nice creepy film of young girls talking about their sexual experiences. There will be just their faces. There is also another film where girls are just smoking pot: the camera shoots their faces before and after they are stoned. This is a pretty good film. With the way the Internet works, these are not films that people will just sit and watch. If somebody is at a gallery they will maybe watch it, but if I put in online I can’t imagine somebody staring at a scene when a girl is going glassy-eyed. After all, all these are about young women; a guy trying to figure out women.
SD: Staying on the side of the Internet, did you ever have to change your work because of Instagram?
RK: Yes. I joined Instagram three years ago. In the beginning, everybody kept saying I have to get there for work. I did start getting work as soon as I started it. I like the constraints Instagram puts on you. When I am shooting, I try to get some Instagram-safe pictures that I can use later. The challenge is to get the same feeling without going over a line, which, in a lot of ways, is more interesting. Instagram also gave me a lot of models. When I was doing the show Shot by Kern with VICE, I was getting a lot of models, but that was by email—people who wanted a casting. Now it is girls who want to increase their followers I suppose, which is slightly different. This “look at me” culture did not exist when I started doing these things—it existed in a different way.
SD: I have been reading about your friendship with Petra Collins, a young artist who leads in hyper-feminist photography. This aesthetic seems to have structural and formalistic similarities to what you have been doing for decades. Sometimes, even if the final product is almost the same, the picture changes meaning according to whether the photographer is male or female. For example, if the photographer is a woman, the image is directly considered revolutionary and feminist, while in the case of a male photographer, it can be accused of objectifying women. What are your thoughts on this paradox?
RK: I think that what you said is probably true. Men looking at women is such a natural thing and I know a lot of women photographers who look at them in exactly the same way I do. It’s a very hard question. There is such a long tradition in art of men painting women. It’s not about objectification—although that’s all over the place—but more about a desire for things men wish they could have or about that kind of yearning for the only feeling they recognise in the world that seems real. You are here on Earth to procreate, that’s about it. It’s like an animal desire. Machinery and technology have the ability to illustrate that desire. I don’t care if it is a man or a woman who illustrates. Women are also illustrating the male desire and putting it out there: they perceive this theme like some kind of an idealised situation. I am shooting women on beds and in bathrooms because I would like to imagine a life in which I am in my house while there is a beautiful woman lying in my bed and I go to the bathroom and there is another one there! There is a peaceful contentment that this kind of setup would make me feel. For example, my book “Contact High” was just about nostalgia. It was me, remembering when I was young and would go around smoking pot with girls, swimming naked and that kind of fun stuff. For me, objectification would be a bukkake scene in porn. I have lifted that exact image from porn shootings and shot these fake bukkake series but I can’t show them anywhere. It’s girls covered with soap and looks exactly like bukkake. I can’t do anything with it. I have to shoot some men in the exact same way. Then, I can show it.
SD: Do you have a team of people that you collaborate with on a steady basis?
RK: I am pretty much a one-person operation. I have interns and a couple of assistants who work for me for a while and then go off and do their own things. As for the models, if there is a great model I will shoot her over a period of several years. Those who help me are always changing, though—this is a very small operation. I don’t have a studio; I have this apartment.
SD: Is this where you mostly shoot?
RK: Now I try to shoot at the person’s location if possible. I have shot in this apartment too many times.
SD: What’s the process before the shooting starts? I know that usually, the model finds you. How does that work?
RK: There is a salon in Brooklyn that I have collaborated with over the years: we have done some little books together and we have been shooting girls in Tokyo and New York. In that circumstance, they will find the girls. That’s great because I won’t have to do anything, but in general, it’s girls from Instagram. There haven’t been any fantastic ones lately. I wonder about this all the time: is it my state of mind that is not open to shooting, or is it that models are drying up? I don’t know. Instagram, I think, has a honeymoon period where it’s very exciting: usually girls write to me when they start and want to model. I have noticed—again, I am not a judge—what I would call “Instagram crazy”. A girl starts getting some attention, she models for everyone all over the place, she starts getting followers and then she just disappears or really takes off. That’s your generation!
SD: Do you make use of the cultural offerings around you? Do you see shows?
RK: I do, maybe once a month. I go to the Whitney a lot because it’s right next to the place I eat. I go to MoMA, to PS1 and I do go to galleries—not as much as I used to. This illusion about the art world is even more obvious now. There is just a lot of gimmick art around and that always makes me feel funny.
SD: How does an ordinary day go by?
RK: I am so boring. The best part of the day is getting to drink coffee in the morning—that’s the most fun part of my day, to wake up and have a coffee, that’s about it. Then it goes downhill from there. Depending on what the day is, I imagine it is very similar to yours if you are self-employed: it’s just hustling on the computer or doing some kind of work related to something I have to do. I also cook a lot. Not like it’s my hobby, it’s just that if you want to eat the kind of food you want to eat, you have to cook, otherwise you spend a fortune.
SD: Are you good at that?
RK: I can make a very good salad! I also have a kid so I have to cook for him. He is not a kid—he is 17.
SD: If I ask for a rough estimation, how many girls do you think you have photographed over the years?
RK: That’s a hard one. I tried to figure it out once and I just gave up. It’s probably not as many as you think! I have no idea.
SD: What kind of pictures are you showing along with this interview in Dapper Dan?
RK: I haven’t done it yet! I will ask them what kind of stuff they want and we’ll take it from there. They will be fantastic, I can just say that! It will be a bunch of snapshots. Probably there will be some girls in bed, a girl in the bathroom and stuff like that.
SD: I am done.
RK: Ok, take out my curse words and make it sound good.
Originally published in Dapper Dan magazine, issue 15, March 2017