If you pay any attention to the tits section of VICE, you probably have a decent understanding of what Richard Kern does. The 59-year-old photographer—whose career spans nearly thirty years, countless exhibitions and a handful of Taschen tomes—has made his name contributing voyeuristic images of young women to a swathe of commercial and niche publications (Purple, V, GQ, Playboy). I spoke with him about his humble beginnings and the ethics of shooting nude girls ahead of his appearance at the 2014 Carbon Festival.
I think most people in Australia would know you from your Vice video series – Shot By Kern – and maybe your fashion work, but you’ve been shooting for a long time and actually started out in experimental film, and then shot for porno mags. How did you move from porn mags to shooting for the various publications you do now?
Shooting for the porn mags was a brief diversion in my career between 1994 and about the year 2000. It was an easy way to fund any other project I wanted to work on – I could shoot for the mags for three or four days and then have the rest of the month free to work on other stuff. But the porn biz began to color my view of everything else I was doing and I felt the need to get out. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the porn business collapsed (internet porn) – shoots that I could sell for $2000-5000 for about three hours of work became shoots that would only sell for $250-500. A couple of photo agents approached me based on my name and notoriety from my old films and early books but I was unable to get much high paying work because clients often didn’t find a porn connection very appealing.
You recently shot the protest music video, ‘Russian Kiss’, for Norwegian pop singer Annie. What motivated you to get involved in this project?
That project came about because Bjarne Melgaard, the artist who collaborated on the song with Annie, approached me. I’ve been in several of Bjarne’s shows (he likes to put what he sees as extreme outsider types into his exhibitions). Annie had funding from the Norway Arts Council, the song is good, their reason for doing the song was interesting, and I was told I could do what I wanted. So it was a no brainer.
Do you approach shooting personal work differently to your video and fashion stuff?
Yes, if you mean photography, then there is a big difference between the types of work. The fashion stuff is like my personal work with weird clothes added in. Unless I’m getting paid for fashion, it’s not very satisfying because most fashion is about selling fantasy to rich people . Unless the models are styled in a non-obtrusive way, the photos, after they have been used, have little value to me because when people are dressed up in funny clothes they look like they have money. And most of the people I shoot for my personal work are pretty broke. I’m more interested in using the models’ clothes and environment for my pics. Music Video work is great because you can put in weird jokes and add little comments about life like I do with my personal work. For example, in five out of the six music videos I’ve done since 2010, I’ve been able to have kissing scenes. Not Hollywood kissing scenes – scenes in which real people kiss.
What does your wife think about you shooting an endless line of beautiful naked girls?
She doesn’t care at all. Not even the tiniest bit. She used to model for me herself. I think she is happy if I get excited to work with a particular model because I’m pretty drab and unexcited by much these days.
Any reason you mainly shoot young girls?
Well, I do a lot of different work but this is how I’m perceived.
I shoot lots of guys and portraits of all ages but unless you see these projects it’s going to look like I shoot only girls cause that’s what’s in the books. This perception sometimes causes problems when I get hired to shoot a portrait for a mag if the model is a woman. PR people are often afraid I’m going to con their client into getting naked or doing something crazy.
The other day I went back to find one of my favorite Shot by Kern episodes and realized that it was no longer on the Vice site. I’m not sure what happened to it but I suspect the model might have asked for it to be taken offline. Do subjects ever ask you to not publish pictures or videos after a shoot?
Yes she probably asked it to be taken down. Whenever a model asks to have her stuff suppressed, I usually go along. No matter how much I talk to people before shooting them and explain that they should use a fake name or not to do anything that they feel uncomfortable with, people often have a change of heart later because it messes up their job or a relationship. For Shot By Kern, I give people the biggest warning ‘cause that stuff is seen by millions of people. On the other hand, some women I shoot embrace the shoots and tell people that if they don’t like it, go fuck themselves.
Terry Richardson has come under fire yet again over allegations of sexual misconduct. Do you worry about these kinds of suspicions within your work? Shot By Kern brings a level of transparency into your working process and I wonder if you factored this is in when you signed onto the series?
I can’t speak to Terry’s problems – he’s in a different world and on a different level than I am.
I’ve had my share of problems in the distant past – one from a woman that was seriously mentally unbalanced and once from someone that just wanted to fuck with me. Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s I was a different person, maybe I did some crazy stuff but I never pushed myself on anyone. I can’t tell you how often I was asked if I’m gay.
Shot by Kern has been good because the model can see that they are not going to get raped. Even after watching the show some girls are still surprised by how sterile I am. This summer two girls I was shooting together in a sexy way for a panty company told me that it was strange shooting for me because I didn’t come on to them. I said, ‘why would I? You’re not sluts’;, and they said ‘but we are sluts!’ I basically have no clue. I’m also turning 60 this year.
How do you scout your models? What are the kinds of reasons they sign up?
I pretty much only use models that email me (unless it’s a job that requires casting). You tell me why they are writing.
Do you think modeling agencies can be too lax with age restrictions and the types of jobs they send girls to?
FUCK YES!!! Over and over through the years when I was shooting something ‘sexy’ for some dumb fashion mag the agents would say, ‘yes she knows what the shoot is about and she is okay with it’, and then the model arrives and has no idea what the shoot is about. Quite often a model would arrive and we’d say you are in underwear or topless and they would walk out or be freaked out. This happened as recently as six months ago and that was a shoot that had no nudity (except a guy’s bare ass in it) but the model looked at the set and clothes and me and freaked. She later called the stylist and apologized for misreading the setup.
There’s been a movement in fashion photography as of late for a raw, untouched, ‘90’s Corinne Day type aesthetic. The unpolished quality is something your work has always carried but why do you think there’s been a move back towards this aesthetic?
To me it seems that there is an opposite movement in fashion towards a more artificial look. Lately I’ve been going back to some of the crazy color stuff I did in the ‘80s myself. My retoucher (who runs a big firm in NY) told me he’s so sick of the fakeness in fashion that I should just run my digital as it’s shot right out of the camera.
I’ve read quite a few interviews of yours where you say shooting a naked girl can get boring. Are you considering expanding? What projects are you working on now?
Like I said above, I shoot all kinds of stuff and often find myself wondering what to do with a model that I’m shooting for my personal work. I usually have a long list of series I’m shooting and try to knock out lots of those shots. Most don’t have much to do with nudity but have been designed to show a woman in a situation in which she might be semi nude. I’m working on a couple of film projects now as well as the photos. I’m trying to figure out if I can shoot a feature based on a book one of my ex models wrote.
You’ve done a series about girls and prescription medicine – what other trends have you observed about the young girls you’ve shot over the years?
That series is the type of work I was talking about above. It’s probably the most successful (to me) of the series I’ve done in recent years because it hits all the squirmy topics but stays within the limits of plausible justification. The movie I made to accompany the photographs has no nudity at all and is really the type of project that interests me the most. People still thought I was exploiting the subjects though – mainly because of a headline that was in VICE describing the movie: ‘Richard Kern Likes His Women Naked and Medicated’. Eventually I got them to take it down because it was completely wrong – I hate drugs!
Richard Kern will speak at RMIT’s Storey Hall on Sunday, March 30 as part of this year’s Carbon Festival. For more information, hit the Carbon site here.