This article appears in Volume 5 – Issue 3 of SKUNK Magazine.Richard Kern
OUTSIDE OF WEED, nudity and sexuality is perhaps the biggest taboo still haunting Right Wing, North American mentality. For some strange reason, the human form in the buff, has always been deemed unacceptable in society, even through its representation as harmless and innocent.
Richard Kern has carved out quite the niche in allowing it to be not just acceptable but indeed hip to ogle pictures of naked ladies. Having been a staple in the New York underground for almost 30 years, Kern has developed a reputation as one of the paramount photographers in his field. But that barely scratches the surface of what Kern has achieved. An accomplished filmmaker known (but not unanimously enamored) all over the globe for his short films including The Right Side of My Brain (Featuring Lydia Lunch and Henry Rollins), Fingered and You Killed Me First, Kern, to a lesser extent, is also recognized as a renowned music video director, working with a whole slew of artists ranging from Marilyn Manson to The Breeders.
But nude photography is his bread and butter as he is recognized as one of the most daring and alluring photo-snappers around. Currently, he can be seen on Vice Magazine’s web channel, vbs.tv with his show “Shot By Kern” (www.vbs.tv/shows/shot-by-kern), consisting of short glimpses into the life of Kern and the lovely ladies that he shoots. Women flock to him, men would give their left nut to be him.
Some call him jaded, others call him a dirty old man. We call him one of the luckiest people on the planet.
Kern at his studio | pic Richard Kern
When I tell people what I do, they tell me that I have their dream job. Clearly these people don’t know Richard Kern. How satisfying is your job?
I would say any job where you don’t feel like you’re going to work is a satisfying job and I don’t feel like I’m going to work usually. Sometimes I feel like I just can’t do this today, but I do it anyways and it’s usually fun.
How did someone from the small town of Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina come to become such a prominent figure in New York?
When I went to school, I studied art; that was my major. It was art and then I was into punk rock music, so both those things were happening in New York. If you lived anywhere on the East Coast, that’s pretty much where you had to go.
Were you involved in this kind of culture out in North Carolina? Was there even one out there?
There was. I went to school in this place called Chapel Hill and it was one of the places that had a little bit of enlightenment there, it’s an area called the research triangle. There was heightened awareness as to what was going on and when you’re like 16, 18, whatever, and you’re into music, I don’t care where you live, you’re trying to find out about it.
I think being in a small town, maybe you have a larger fantasy life. You’ve seen the movie Blue Velvet? That was very close to where I grew up. The scenes of him and the girl hanging out, sitting in the car, doing things like that, that’s what it was like where I grew up. That movie, it seems very weird but it was very accurate.
How did it make you feel being described as one of the major figures of the cinema of transgression? can you explain what was so important about that period in ny?
That period, I would say, again it was pre-Internet, and pre-Internet is like a big thing, because when something was kind of underground you really felt like you were part of something, like you could identify the other members of the underground. If you saw them, you knew them. But now it’s, I would have no idea how to identify something underground because it’s all pretty much online.
But for the other part of the question, it’s extremely amusing to think of cinema of transgression as a “cultural movement”. It was about 3 or 4 people doing stuff. That hardly qualifies as a movement.
“The Heroin Addict”, a small zine in the early EIGHTIES was your first real foray into the New York Culture.
That was the first fanzine I did, and it was before I smoked pot or done acid and all that stuff, and heroin didn’t exist in North Carolina when I was doing that magazine so, that was one of those fantasy things. I’d listen to that song “Heroin” by Lou Reed and think to myself, ‘this is the ultimate cool thing, to be a heroin addict.’ So I also called it that, it was “for people who are too chicken to do heroin”. It was just a simple fanzine. People were doing fanzines then.
Then I followed it with “The Valium Addict” and a couple of other ones. Then I went on to New York to actually live out my fantasy and it didn’t measure up [laughs].
People say pot is the gateway drug, but I guess Lou Reed is.
Exactly. God, I can’t think of how many people he turned on. Not just him but that whole time period. The time period I grew up in, drugs were completely glamorized… I came into the end of the hippy era where it’s like take drugs, free sex, free love and all that shit, and I don’t think the full effects of all the bad parts had happened. Anyways, yeah it didn’t measure up.
You used to smoke pot. What made you stop?
A.A. [laughs] You know, getting off heroin I had to kick everything. I miss it. I still love to look at it and smell it.
No thoughts on taking photos? if you think about it, it’s not that different from what you already do. You photograph something that’s both natural and aesthetically pleasing.
Something that’s glistening and hairy.
Exactly! It’s pretty much the same thing.
Yeah. It makes your mouth water.
And, like what you do, it walks a thin line between acceptable and not. What is it about the female form that intrigues you to do what you?
When you quit drugs, there’s not much left [laughs]. When you quit drugs you kind of have a re-emergence of your adolescence. That heroin thing, it just kills your libido, and I was into it pretty heavily for about four years. And then you’re just like, everybody who’s in those programs are like sex addicts! You just replace one addiction with another. I tried to think of a safe way to satisfy my cravings or yearning, and I thought, ‘I’ll photograph naked women.’ I also thought it would be something that would be fun to do when I’m old, which I am now and I’m getting older every day.
We all are, man.
And it’s still fun. But now people, before they would just say, “he’s a sleazebag, he photographs naked women.” Now they say “he’s a dirty old man.”
Yeah, exactly, man. I say, “I might be a dirty old man, but everybody’s a fucking dirty old man. They just won’t admit it.”
You were quoted as saying “When I was on drugs, I took myself way more seriously than I did after I quit.” How big a role did drugs play during that time?
When I was making the films, the nihilism that goes along with the drugs, like I was talking to a big rock star from that period the other day. I won’t say his name but he was also a junkie, and I was telling him when I used to play in a band I used to have to do drugs just so I could turn around and face the audience, and he said “yeah that was pretty much the same thing.” He had a pretty big record, and he said by the time the record came out, he was over it. You know, the whole thing seemed like a farce. Yeah, it’s much easier to take yourself seriously.
The other thing about drug addicts, not all but a lot, it’s people pretending they’re a lot tougher than they are. There were times in my drug days where I would think I was such a badass, and then I would meet the real badasses. It would scare the fuck out of me! I was in San Francisco, trying to buy an ounce of crystal from these guys. They take me over to Oakland, to this motorcycle club. And I start looking around… and I was just like ‘Holy Shit! What the fuck am I doing?’ These guys were scary, man.
I’m sure it wasn’t all warm and fuzzy and happy bunnies.
And I have to say, the scene in New York among the hipsters, looked very different from the scene I encountered when I went to the West Coast and hung out with the real people.
You mentioned the notion of sex addicts before. Do you believe sex can be an addiction?
Definitely. It’s still a struggle for me. I don’t know about for girls, but for guys it definitely can. Most guys have probably had the experience where ‘I’ve gotta get some work done, but if I don’t jerk off, I’m not gonna get anything done.’ And you have to do it and get on with your life.
I’ve been there. Twice today already! You directed several videos including the classic “Detachable Penis” by King Missile. Where did this musical yearning stem from and did you choose these artists specifically?
The thing about music videos is you don’t choose the artists, they choose you. They’ve gotta want you to do something and that’s pretty much the bottom line. There’s no way around it. And people that, I think, were similar thinkers picked me for that reason. They saw my other stuff and were into it.
Would they say, “this is want we want and we want you to shoot it”?
“Detachable Penis”, that was the one time they didn’t say that. But pretty much everything else I did – well there’s also Sonic Youth, I had a lot of input there – pretty much the other times they would say, “this is what we’re thinking. Can you do this?”
How did you get involved with Thurston Moore and Sonic Youth?
That was through Lydia Lunch. I was doing stuff with her, it was around the time when she was singing “Death Valley 69” with them, and they were doing a video and they wanted somebody to do some special effects. They asked me to work with them and that’s when I met up with them. And we still do a lot of stuff together. That’s been one relationship that’s stayed open through the years.
You’ve involved yourself in a plethora of different mediums: Print, Photography, Film, music etc. Was this the plan all along?
No, I had no plan. I plan maybe 3-4 months in the future for things I gotta do, but that’s about it. These days, the only planning or trying to come up with ideas have to do with my own personal stuff. Like I’ll have a show and I’ll think, ‘well I wanna try this and this for that show. Maybe I’ll try this idea at this time.’ There’s not much planning beyond that.
That’s the great thing about photography… with movies you have to do a lot of preparation and [with] photography it’s minimal.
You also moved into the weird wide web with your site NewNudeCity.com.
I don’t own that site. Somebody approached me and said “you can be making $20,000 a month!” And I said “really?” I mean I could do whatever I want if I was making that kind of money. But, it’s nowhere near that. It’s just all this old content I had, it’s just sitting there, so, I just generate some money.
Would you describe it as erotic art or as pornography?
I wouldn’t even describe it. I would just say it’s a website and I’ll probably have to get rid of it at some point because it’s gonna interfere with my commercial work.
Do you have a problem when people say it’s nothing more than smut?
You personally couldn’t care less?
[sarcastically] I mean I care of course, it really hurts me deep down inside but… I’ve been doing fashion for some time and it comes up quite often. I just read this review of a story I did. They were saying, “I usually don’t approve of vulgar photographers working with high-end models, but this time it’s actually ok.” And I ‘m just thinking I’m the vulgar photographer. And that sticks in my head. Ok I’m a vulgar photographer. What the fuck does that mean?
So when you’re not working you’re the dirty old man and when you are you’re the vulgar photographer.
Yeah. I mean why can’t I just be the photographer? Everyone has this preconceived notion. I would expect that they have an idea as to what kind of person is doing the photography and what’s gonna happen at the photo shoot. I get approached by models who are surprised when I’m not coming onto them or acting all sexy and talking sexy to them but I’m just talking like I’m a machine, because I am a machine! I’m not there to have sex.
No, you have a job to do! Speaking of jobs, you’ve worked with numerous adult mags, including Hustler. Does that alter the perception people have of the work you’ve done?
Well, it’s funny. I thought over the years that I had to keep all this secret, all this porno stuff. It was a time period of about five years when I just said, “fuck it, I can make so much money,” and I did it. Then I got to where I couldn’t make any more money and I got out at a good time to get out because now you really can’t make money at it. I thought that working for those magazines was gonna seriously affect my other stuff, but I realized nobody looks at those magazines. When the web started up, then everyone becomes aware of that shit. Now it takes about a second to figure out everything about somebody. Everything they’ve ever done or been involved in. So working for them back then wasn’t such a big deal, I found out.
Compared to the spreads that you do, are you accepting of the current mainstream porn objectifying women in a much more demeaning way?
I’m pretty indifferent to it. I have to say, if I’m looking at porn myself, when I download shit, if it’s something that looks like L.A. porn, I pretty much just immediately delete it.
The airbrushed, cookie-cutter stuff?
Not even that. Just like if the girl looks like a skank and a guy’s saying, “eat my cock” and shit like that, it just doesn’t do anything for me. I’m more of, like, Asian porn, you know, Japanese porn where it’s innocence defiled kind of, and the girls actually look innocent.
Well, that really fits in with your style of photography.
Yeah. I like innocence. The other stuff, like I did the book “New York Girls”, which had a lot of tattoos and shit, but I never shoot the stuff anymore either. I don’t hate tattoos but when I get emails from girls that are like suicide girl types, how could someone get excited about that?
As someone whose career has consists of pushing boundaries, what’s your opinion on the notion that despite all the viable info out there regarding the benefits of legalizing pot, it’s still illegal?
I think that’s crazy! I think pot should totally be legal. Then I would be able to get stoned more by being in places where people are smoking. [laughs]
Why is it that things like pot and nudity have such a difficult time being accepted?
Hmm… boy, nudity and pot go together. When I did smoke pot, I have to say, if I was with somebody I wasn’t into so much anymore, all I had to do was smoke a little pot and I was into them all over again. [laughs] Although, since I quit smoking pot, I look at the pot now and I see what people smoke and I’m just like, I’d be terrified to smoke some of it. It’s all so potent! I’d be afraid to touch some of this stuff. You’re gonna be like when you used to touch acid and get high.
How did you get involved with VBS?
We started [Shot By Kern] about two or three years ago. It’s just me shooting girls and then shooting me shooting them. That came at a time when it was getting harder for me to get models. The way it would work before is I would meet a model [and] she would hook me up with all her girlfriends, and it was getting to where it was getting hard to find the first girl, and VBS was trying to do this show, and now it’s been just like models galore. They also send me places to shoot. I just came back from Brazil where I shot for three days, I went to Mexico City earlier in the year and this summer we’re gonna go to Barcelona, London, Paris, Berlin, Antwerp and several other cities, just shooting for the TV show.
You’ve got a tough life.
It’s fun. [laughs] The tough part is editing. Taking the photos is great but I shot something the other day that was 65 gigs of material that I had to edit down, and it’s not even naked girls. What a job.
I read you prefer not to use professional models.
Yes, that goes back to the innocence thing, although, I have to say, if you’re working with a professional model, like a good model, not like a professional mayhem model but a girl from a really good agency, that’s the easiest shoots because they just go boom boom boom. Every time you click they’re in a new pose.
But, for innocence and some kind of interest for me… a girl that’s never taken her clothes off in front of somebody or maybe done it once or twice for their boyfriend, those turn out to be the best models. There’s something in their face that you just can’t fake. It’s hard to fake that innocent look.
Does the importance of being timeless factor into anything you do?
Well, I don’t think of it at all. I just try not to make them look fake, although 90% of it is fake. And that’s extremely hard when you’re shooting fashion because there’s nothing like a beautiful girl standing there and somebody wants to hang some stupid fucking clothes on her.
Does it ever get awkward?
Nope. The only time it ever gets awkward, and I wouldn’t really call it awkward, is if a girl starts masturbating. And then I’m just like, “oh, wow, great.” That’s hardly ever happened but occasionally it’s happened.
Have you ever shot anything, print or film in which you thought to yourself ‘ok… this is too much, even for me’?
Yes, actually. I get an email from a girl in Tokyo that says ‘I’d like to model for you. I’m 19. I’ll come to New York.’ And she sends me photos and they’re kind of ok, and I say, “Alright. Sure, I’ll shoot you,” In the photo in the email she sent, I noticed there were like scars on her arm, and I said, “what are all those scars?” and she said, “oh, I cut myself sometimes.” I go, “God, that would be great to photograph,” and that’s when she shows up, she shows up like two days later. She shows up here and she’s completely anorexic first, she arrives with this gigantic thing of pills, like ruffees and all this shit, and she just took a ton of ‘em and then she sat on the bed, and I said, “well, I guess I’ll shoot you cutting yourself,” and she just cuts the shit outta her arms and legs and all this stuff, there’s blood all over the place. And I’m thinking, ‘what the fuck am I doing? Jesus.’
There’ve been a couple of things like that, but that was the most extreme one. I didn’t force this girl to do any of this; this is what she wanted to do. So I shot it, but it did have a big “queaze” factor.
How do you end a photo session like that?
With somebody like that, it’s like you must love me because you’re accepting me doing this. And I felt like this girl was expecting more from me than to just take photos of her. And then I said, “ok, see you later.” And that was it.
You haven’t spoken to her since?
No, I heard from her a couple of times after that and… anyways…
Have you ever done any work up in Canada?
I have actually. In fact, Canada got me investigated by the FBI once years ago. I used to have some of my films out myself, I had my own little tape business, and one of them got confiscated at the border there, and I got a sort of FBI investigation into me of child pornography, which wasn’t true. The way I found about it was, a friend of mine in Sweden said he got picked up by the police and questioned about me. This was like right after I got off drugs, like in ’88, and I’m like “what?!” when he told me this. So then I talked to a lawyer and the lawyer said “you better get documentation of everybody you ever photographed.” So I went back, and at that time it wasn’t a large number, and I had to go back and get releases and IDs from everyone.
Is there any question you always wished you were asked, but never were?
Yes, would you like to be paid for this interview? [laughs] Hey, you gotta pay the bills somehow.