Richard Kern - Photographer, U.S.A.

“Pressing the shutter”

LS: You are a legend. You sell fantasies like no other in the world. Erotic fantasies, violent and white and black in the Eighties, decadent and dark at the beginning of the next decade, candidly voyeurs in this twenty-first century. –What is your language?

RK: I started out taking photos of the people that I knew around me. The earliest photos were of people in my film and the drug scene. My roommate in the late 80’s was going through a period as a stripper so I shot a lot of people from that scene. Then there was a period of shooting girls from Alcoholics Anonymous when I got clean. I never really asked people to model, bored girls would hear that I was shooting photos and volenteer to model. Over the years I continued to drift through different scenes, using the women I met to try out different styles. Models came from the art scene in New York, the porn scene in LA. There was a long period where models came from American Apparal stores. One girl models then tells her friends and they do it. For the last few years most of my models have written me because of my show “Shot By Kern” that I do with Vice Magazine. I took lots of photos of models just standing there but eventually I got bored with that and began trying to show the models doing something that will identify them in the time period we are shooting in.

Marty Nations and Lydia Lunch - Fingered (R.Kern - 1986)

LS: Your artworks of your first period explore the fetish. The punk movement. Can you tell me more?
RK: I was very influenced by the attitudes of the punk movement. My fantasy with a lot of my fanzines and movies from that time were if someone looked at them, their brain would somehow be messed up a little bit more and by doing this I was helping to destroy culture as it existed. These are the dreams of angry youth. I believed in no rules and no law. Maybe Fingered was successful in this in that many people told me that after they watched it their sex lives changed. Now I get upset if I see someone not pick up the dog poop their dog has done on the sidewalk. I get indignant when I see a bicycle going the wrong way on a one way street.

Monica in green light - 1993

Jen on her head - 1994

LS: Can you tell me about your wild youth in New York?
RK: I don’t think my life was that wild but when I think about how I lived back then and how I live now, maybe it was. My neighborhood was populated by abandoned buildings and drug dealers. My first apartment here was, I realized after I rented it, in a building that was controlled by a drug gang. Four apartments were used to cut up and package heroin and coke and three others were used as places where junkies lived and shot up in.

Elenore's first shave - 2003

LS: Your artworks, of your first period, explore the fetish. The punk movement. Can you tell me more?
RK: I was very influenced by the attitudes of the punk movement. My fantasy with a lot of my fanzines and movies from that time were if someone looked at them, their brain would somehow be messed up a little bit more and by doing this I was helping to destroy culture as it existed. These are the dreams of angry youth. I believed in no rules and no law. Maybe Fingered was successful in this in that many people told me that after they watched it their sex lives changed. Now I get upset if I see someone not pick up the dog poop their dog has done on the sidewalk. I get indignant when I see a bicycle going the wrong way on a one way street.

LS: You explore the power of relationships between spectacle and voyeur.

RK: Maybe

Brushing - 2009

LS: I remember the ‘Mnemosyne – The Atlas of images ‘ group show curated to the Centro Arti Visive (2009) with also the projection of ‘The Bitches‘ film. Can you tell me about it?

RK: The Bitches was sort of based on Nick Zedd and the way he could appear so macho with women, then turn around a be in drag and act like a woman. The ending allows me to get away with all the misogyny in the rest of the film.

LS: Your first artistic medium was the video. After you chose the photo. Can you tell me about this change?

RK: My first medium was actually photography. I’d been taking photos as a hobby since I was in the 5th grade. I published several fanzines in the mid 1970s as a way to get my photographs seen. The early photos were in a noir style. I walked around with my camera looking for weird things to shoot. A friend suggested I “shoot from the hip” which is when you hold your camera down by your side and take photos without people being aware of you shooting. I’ve got maybe 10 good photos from this period. Walking around waiting for something to happen is hard work. It’s much easier to set up something to shoot. I started making films because it seemed to me that it would be easier to get noticed if I made films. Somehow making a movie seemed more glamorous than taking a photo.

LS: Also your photographic style in the last decades changed…

RK: I don’t think my language changed, I think I got older. My standards for my own photographs have gotten higher but that’s because there are so many more photographers shooting like I do now. There’s tons of crap work out there and I’ve contributed my share.

LS: In your own words what defines “femininity” for you?

RK: I do not like makeup on women and I don’t like perfumes or smelly lotions on them. I hate deodorant. I like women to be in their most natural state. Thickly applied makeup makes me think of drag queens. I don’t like fake breasts or any plastic surgery.

Lucy, class of 2010

LS: What is your mental process or rather the internal dialogue that you have with yourself before pressing the shutter?

RK: By the time I’m pressing the shutter, I’m on auto pilot and just thinking about the framing and all the background lines behind whoever I’m shooting. Usually, I show up at a shoot with a list I’ve thought about before I get there. I have to take a quick look at the location to see which things on my list will work in that place. Then I start with what seems to be the best setup and work down the list till my time is up.

Adderall - 2011

Interview curated by Camilla Boemio