INTERVIEWED BY JESSE PEARSON
Richard Kern is a photographer and filmmaker who got his start in the East Village when it was still dangerous. His 1980s films featured punk pin-ups like Lydia Lunch and the mysterious woman known as Lung Leg, along with artists and bands like David Wojnarowicz and Sonic Youth.
Kern’s focus today is on his cheesecake photos of beautiful, natural young women who live, mostly, in New York. His work is clean, direct, and always bears the clear stamp of his humor and horniness.
Jesse Pearson: When did you start taking pictures?
Richard Kern: When I was maybe ten years old. I’d make model cars and arrange them in little scenarios and then take photos of them with my Instamatic. It meant a lot to me, just taking pictures. Now my son is near that age and he takes pictures. He just walks around and snaps photos of things. Then I did fanzines when I was in college. A lot of the reason for doing them was to publish these surrealist-type photos I was shooting. Then I realized that you get known a lot faster from movies and stuff than from photos—at least this was what I thought. So I started making films and using my photos as promos for the films.
But were the photos still your priority?
No, it was kind of like a dual thing. I was into films, but the films seemed to be a really fast way to get your name out. Like performance art. I did some of that stuff too.
Well, what I realized was even faster than film was if you were super controversial and just living in the East Village. In the early 1980s, it was a lot easier to be controversial than it is now. I went out with a dancer and I’d go to see her do these performance art things that were horrible. Unless they at least had music to go with them, they were usually really boring. So I would have these performances, maybe show a film or something, at the same venues these dancer people were using. The first one was in a super-crowded little club and I planted a heckler in the audience. He was standing there and yelling at us while I had a guy doing a regular performance dance thing. Then I had the dancer start shouting at the heckler and it escalated. Then I ran through the crowd and started stabbing the heckler and we had fake blood all over him, just blood shooting up everywhere in a crowded place. It really worked.
People bought it?
Yeah, yeah, people would totally buy it. But then they’d realize it was fake and then it’d be over.
I always wondered how you walk away from a performance like that when it’s over. Like you’re just standing there as people recover and start to get it…
You just leave.
You just walk out the door?
Sure. So soon after that I started working with Lydia Lunch a lot. She heard about these things, and we started doing stuff together at the Pyramid Club on Avenue A. For example, I’d have a projector and I’d show a wrestling film, except I had the projector on the stage and I’d turn it around toward the back of the room so everybody had to be turned around in their chairs to see the movie. As soon as everyone turned around, me and another guy came out and we just tried to kill each other. We were fighting, and we agreed we were just going to try to kill each other for real. We rolled out right into the crowd, knocking shit over and chasing everybody off. I went on tour with Lydia and we did this shit in Japan and all through the United States. It was a real quick way to get attention.
You and this guy would fight and that would sort of be her opening act?
It would be listed on the bill but nobody would know who I was. So it would just be this thing that happened, and they wouldn’t realize what the hell was going on.
It’s good that you didn’t try to rationalize it with some bullshit art talk about being transgressive or crossing borders or something.
Everything else seemed so pretentious, so we were always trying to do stuff that was totally unjustifiable.
So after these performances came your first movies?
Yeah. I started making films that I would do these performances with, and then finally I had enough films that I actually could just show them and not have to perform. I didn’t have to do the other shit anymore. I could show movies like Fingered and I didn’t have to stand up there and do anything because the film did it all for me. It’s hard to imagine a film like that shocking people now, but I was sitting in the front row at some place, like in Boston or something, and looking at people’s faces while the movie was rolling and they would just be appalled.
Didn’t they sort of know what to expect when they bought a ticket or booked your movies?
Not always. They would hear about me and then they would book one of my movies or go and see one, but they’d have no idea what it was beforehand. People do this a lot. They have no idea what stuff is, but they hear that it’s cool. They’re like, “This is cool. I’ve heard of this thing and it must be cool.” So they’d book it and it’d always be a big surprise.
Why did you quit making movies?
Around 1992, I just ran out of steam. The last one I made was called My Nightmare and it’s me fantasizing about this girl I know. I was doing a lot of photographs around this time, and I’m fantasizing about this girl I’m going to shoot and jerking off and having all these flash-forwards to when she’s gonna be there and then she shows up and I just come, and she walks in and I try to do all this stuff and she doesn’t want me to do anything. The whole point of the movie was I really wanted to do all this stuff to this girl and since I filmed it, I got to actually do it.
So with the movie camera you got to do stuff you couldn’t do in real life.
Yes, and it’s the same thing with taking photographs.
You left film in ‘92, and photos became the focus. What kind of photos?
At that time I seemed to know a lot of strippers and S&M people from a couple of girls I’d met. I started just shooting whomever I could. There seemed to be a lot of tattoos, and I was shooting all these tattooed girls—all these rich girls who would become strippers and get tattoos and it was like a great performance angle for them or something.
This was right before that era that sucked, when some strippers were getting into punk politics. Right?
They kind of ran parallel, because a lot of the girls I shot bought that stuff but then at the same time, they thought, “Well I should be able to be a stripper if I want to.” Then there were also girls who thought, “By stripping I am helping mankind.” That’s the way they were justifying it.
Helping mankind by getting guys off?
Yeah, because these are lonely guys who wouldn’t otherwise be able to have any thrills. But I was just into shooting anyone I could. One girl would lead to another and then to another, and at one point I started getting some very good models. That became the book New York Girls. Most of the girls in there were just starting to get nipple rings and tattoos all over.
That stuff is really taken for granted now.
Yeah, now it’s the exact opposite. When I see somebody like that they seem totally jaded to me. I was telling my girlfriend how I’ve seen the entire progression of the belly button ring. It started as a thing where one girl would have it, like one out of five girls. Then there was one point where every single girl had a belly button ring. Then it started going away, where I’d see girls that were like 24 who used to have one but took it out so you could still see the hole. And now I’m starting to see girls who have never had it, which is kind of cool. And now all these girls who have tattoos want to get photographed. They’re regular girls who come in from the street with a ton of tattoos. It just doesn’t do it for me.
You mean like Suicide Girls kind of things?
Yeah, that whole genre.
My problem with that stuff is that those girls are saying they’re empowering themselves by going out and doing porn, and I’m sure some of these girls are actually homeless punks…
I’ve shot some of them, some of the homeless punks. They were junkies.
… but I think they’re outweighed by the liberal-arts college girls, and I think that they’re sort of pissing on women who actually are more economically compelled to be strippers. When you’re one of the prettiest girls in a shitty town and you’re too poor to go to college… I’m thinking of girls who I’ve been friends with who were strippers, and then they were strippers who fucked around a little bit, and then they were hookers, and now they’re hookers who are schizophrenic from all the speed they shoot and they probably have twenty different kinds of STDs and are going to die at 40. Compared to all this, the Suicide Girls stuff is such a day-tripper vibe.
To me that stuff is all fashion. It’s a whole part of fashion that hopefully will go away.
Yeah, and I’m not totally complaining. On the basic physical-uses level, a photo of a naked girl is a photo of a naked girl is a photo of a naked girl. It’s on the bigger implications level that I’m grossed out by college girl porn. I have a question about New York Girls in relation to what you do now. In New York Girls you’d see a lot of colored lights. Things felt more theatrical. Now everything in your pictures is very natural. How come?
I wanted to make everything more real. In New York Girls I was trying to make it look mysterious and cool, and now I’m into making things seem kind of pure-but-not-pure. But really it’s just art, and it kind of suited that time period. If you look at music videos from then, there was a whole period of false process. It became a look, almost like shooting in black and white to make it like, “This is art because it’s black and white.” That’s stupid but kind of cool in a way too.
Do you think you were influenced by the rise of amateur internet porn?
Oh sure, I got a lot of good ideas from it. There was a site that I looked at everyday, with just people sending in their own stuff, and I thought it was really great. But now, on the internet, I am getting way more into everyone taking pictures of everything—especially celebrities. I love spy photography and voyeuristic stuff.
I think a lot of people who look at your work want to know, historically, how many of the girls you’ve shot have you ended up doing it with.
That’s a good question. Um…
Because it’s so intimate when you shoot these girls.
Sometimes just taking the photos is as hot for me as actually having sex, because it’s super intimate. It becomes more. But how many girls? I don’t really know. A lot more in the old days than I do now.
In the New York Girls era it was more than now?
Definitely. I always had a girlfriend though, so it was like…
Do they get jealous?
That has happened, yes. Or they say they don’t care, but after we break up they say they had a real problem with it.
Do you think you’ll ever make a movie again?
I’m making one this summer. Well, I’m not making it—I’m just editing together a bunch of sexy video footage that I’ve shot over the last few years. It’s going to be on a DVD inside my next book.
What’s the next book called?
It’s called Action. They wouldn’t let me call it Hard. It was going to be all outtakes from porno, but now it’s turned into a mix. There’s some hard stuff in there for sure, but the publisher is backing off, kind of mellowing out a little. Everybody does.
You have a porno site right?
Do you pay girls differently if it’s some straight-up porno stuff?
$50 an hour for regular stuff I shoot, $100 an hour for sex mags. But I haven’t shot any of that stuff in almost a year.
Did you quit?
I didn’t quit, but there’s so much competition and I haven’t found a girl who would actually let me put her in a porn mag in a long time. But the other thing I realized is, it’s better for me to just shoot stuff that means something to me, because in the long run that’s more profitable.
Do you have a favorite girl you’ve shot?
No, because there’s always somebody new. I can tell you some favorites though. There was one named Alisa. She was this Russian girl who was like 22 and went to Julliard. She was a classical musician. She like entered into that world, just being in photographs, had shots in tons and tons of magazines, and was super popular. I got tons of good photos, she did all this crazy shit for me. But then she just wandered back out again and disappeared.
You’ve photographed the Scottish artist Lucy McKenzie a lot too.
Yeah. She was really into Cosey Fanni Tutti from Throbbing Gristle. That was very interesting for me, because when I was like 20 or 21, I’d seen these porno mags with Cosey in them. I was like, “This is the girl from Throbbing Gristle and she’s in a porno mag!” Lucy discovered her and she was really into it, so she did the same thing.
So were you guys doing it as like a cover of what Cosey had done?
Well, just as like an intellectual exercise, the same way Cosey did it. It all accumulated in England with a show I had, and we had a panel with Lucy, Cosey, and me.
Is Lucy still cool with all the photos you guys took now that she is getting famous as an artist?
Yeah, she doesn’t give a shit.
Maybe since she’s an artist it’s a totally different story. There are probably plenty of normal girls whose lives could be ruined by being in porno photos.
Oh yeah, for sure. But those girls’ lives are probably going to get ruined anyway, whether they do this stuff or not.
The porno business is dark.
And it’s gotten darker. I get these model one-sheets everyday, from all the porn agents, and it’s like, “She does double penetration, swallows, facial, cream pie, snowball, interracial, double anal, double vag.” But it’ll say something like, “No tickling.” Some weird personal thing. And then it’ll say, “Age: 18.”
And they used to just say if they did anal or not.
Yeah, and that would be something you’d get to once you’d been shooting forever and exhausted every possible means. Then you could always go back and do that. Now it’s just like they start that way. I shot one girl who was 18 and she said, “I did my first interracial anal gangbang yesterday.”
Jesus, how old was her asshole?
That’s what I wanted to say: “Can I see how pink your butt is?” She was like, “That’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I knew since I was twelve that I wanted to be in porno.” And it’s like, how do people even know that? But I guess, I don’t know, you look at some kids’ MySpace pages now and it’s pretty obvious.
Can you run off the names of some porno mags you’ve shot for?
Barely Legal, Tight, Live Young Girls, Finally Legal, Candy Girls…
Juggs, we should say Juggs.