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Richard Kern Text


You’ve been taking photos of girls for almost thirty years. Will you ever tire of them? Will you photograph girls for the rest of your life? Do you think of them as girls or women?
I don’t see any reason to stop taking photos of women. Photographing naked girls was a career change for me when I started doing it seriously at age 34. At the time, I thought that it would be a nice occupation to have as I grew older. Sometimes I think of the models as girls and sometimes as women.

What keeps your interest?
Trying to think of new things to do within a cliché-ridden format.

When did you start mashing panties and bras into your photos? How did that happen?
A fashion magazine asked me to shoot Kate Moss and told me that she would do whatever I wanted for the photos. I’d been reading about the crazy prices people were paying for clothes worn by Marilyn Monroe at auction. Each piece in the auction was shown with a photo of Marilyn wearing the item as proof that it was authentic. I thought that I would shoot Kate in a bunch of different panties, frame up the panties with the photos and sell them.
The magazine didn’t get approval for the shoot and I never got to shoot Kate Moss so I had to alter my plan. I was thinking of shooting celebs in panties because I’d heard that perverts pay for used panties (and stockings etc) along with photos of women wearing them. Because it was going to be hard to get celebrities to model for me in their underwear, I decided to go for this simpler plan. Once someone is seen in a photograph hanging on a wall or in a magazine or book, they gain a kind of celebrity anyway. Art collectors, memorabilia collectors and panty collecting perverts all share a similar desire to own something that has been “touched” by a specific person.

Wasn’t upskirts going to be a video? How’d it turn into photo? Is this the first time you’ve ganged images?
The upskirts thing started as a photo project. I then decided to make an upskirts video. I’m still working on it. There’s accompanying video to most all my projects. In the early ’80s I “ganged” Xerox copies of my photos for a few shows. These groupings were put on the wall with wheat paste—like the posters you see around town. A poet friend, Montanna Houston, made a cut-up poem from NY Post headlines that went in the center of each piece. These were easy to show because I only had to send a box of copies to a gallery in another city—I didn’t have to go and hang the show. The only time I did this in NYC was for a show organized by David Wonjarowitz in an abandoned building on the westside docks around 1983 or 1984.

How difficult is it to make a sexually explicit photo that operates in the art context? One doesn’t see so many of them, or rather many successful ones, especially outside of photography.
This might sound stupid but I don’t think of these as sexually explicit photos. It would take me several pages to answer that question so I’m going to skip this one.

I think of your photos as being casually restrained in every way: no real glam, low on acting, slyly close to amateur on lighting and props . . . conceptualy rather flat . . . Do you think of them that way? Is this something you’ve developed?
I don’t think too much about the technique unless I’m working on a job. For my personal work the main things I think about are what the girl will be wearing, where we will be shooting and how I can get enough light for each shot without it looking too much like a snapshot. Pretty basic stuff.

Do you have rules for your behavior during sessions? If so, what are some of them?
I try to keep each shoot as professional as possible—no rude comments, no touching, etc. I keep good records and releases and pay the models. This is my job so I treat it like one.

Are scenes for the photos sometimes inspired by the model? Do you occasionally end up with an image you never expected?
Some of the photos are definitely defined by the model. I usually have a general shot list that I want to shoot—how the model responds to my instructions determines the result. Yes, I often plan to shoot one thing but find out that the best shot was something I didn’t plan.

Any interest in making more movies?
I still shoot video for short films. I’d love to make a feature but I’d be afraid that I’d spend 2 years working on it, then find out I’d wasted my time because it sucked. When I waste my time shooting someone I’m not financially devastated.

Occasionally i see adverts that read very Richard Kern. Do you sometimes feel like corporate advertising, or the designers and photographers who work for them, has ripped off your style?
From what I’ve learned doing commercial work, it’s possible that what you are suggesting has happened. I know that some of the best fashion stories I’ve done were the result of an art director or stylist giving me a bunch of swipe (art dept. slang for inspirational material) to copy. I borrow material from many visual sources myself. Looking at the photos in this show, I can immediately see 4 ideas that i lifted.



Do you spend a lot of time with the location incidentals and the view out the window?
The first thing I usually want to know about a location (apart from if I can shoot there for free or not) is if the place has any windows. I then arrange everything around the best window in the apartment if there is a good one. Sometimes the “view” works, sometimes not. Most of the time, I’m not totally aware of what’s actually outside the window or the details inside the room until later when I see the photo. I’m in too much of a hurry when I’m actually shooting.

Color seems increasingly particular and important to you.
In the book “New York Girls” I added a lot of artificial colors using gels or processing tricks. Now I’m trying not to make “enhanced” photos. There’s only a few colors in these photographs because there’s not that many different colors in urban environments. Man-made colors (fabrics, nail polish, etc.) really stand out against natural ones.

How particular is the portrait to the person?
Usually, I have a list of things I would like to shoot. If an idea is a bit too weird, I save it for a model who seems to have less restrictions than others. For example, lots of women don’t want to show anything below the belt. If a model has too many restrictions at our first meeting, there will not be a second meeting. Some models have challenged me to come up with something they will not do.

Are there instances where the model’s suggestion for a shot is too much for you?
No, that’s usually where I say, “let me check the lights first”.

Do you set out to somehow unify gross and beautiful?
I don’t think I need to unify them, I think that these two elements coexist everywhere. Everyone and everything has imperfections.

What about shots without sexuality? What keeps sex in the picture?
Maybe sex is not really there. Perhaps the viewer is adding that element.


Were you happy that Jeffrey Rian, in his review of your 1996 exhibition in Paris, lodged your photographs in the genre of portraiture?
Yes, because a lot of it was. To me, photographs of people can be thought of as portraits, documentation of events, or illustrations of ideas.

How do you find your models?
People who have modeled for me usually refer other people to me. Sometimes, people contact me after seeing my books, shows or website. When I travel, I usually ask a friend who lives in the place I’m traveling to if they know anyone who would like to model. I’ve never walked up to someone on the street and asked them to model.

What do you look for in an exciting model?
Enthusiasm and a willingness to work without limits.

Do the models often come up with the poses or have input on the shoot?
The model’s input definitely shapes the outcome of the photos. I generally put them in the "set" and try to get them to do the pose I’m looking for. The way they move their body in response to the suggestions I give seldom matches what I’ve visualized but the result is usually better than I had anticipated. The models often will come up with an idea, pose or situation that I hadn’t thought of. But I usually have about three to five different ideas or "placements" for each shoot before the model arrives.

Is pornography rather like a prop?
To create images that will be used in "pornographic" magazines is often the basis for my shoots. The difference between a regular shoot and a porn shoot is that the model and I both know that we are shooting for a porn magazine. The model is getting paid more and I know that I have to get certain images in order to fit into the "porn" format. Sometimes I steal poses from porn magazines for my own shoots. Lisa’s pose in the photograph Lisa Looking Through Her Legs had, as its starting point, a photo in a porn magazine, although this shoot wasn’t done for a porn mag.

Do some of your art photos come from actual porno shoots or are they most always separate episodes?
There is a mixture. Four of the images in this show were done during porn shoots. Since the model is already there, I often try to get an "idea"-type photo during a porn shoot. For example the photograph of the woman putting eye-drops in was shot during what I hoped to be a saleable porn shoot. I shot her in many "sexy" positions all around her loft in Paris. At the end of the shoot, I broke out the box of eye-drops I had just purchased and shot her using them for thirty minutes because I wanted that shot for a series of cosmetic-related photographs I’ve been taking. I sent the "porn" images to the magazine and kept the eye-drop images for myself.

The last batch of photos seemed to be about corners. Now it’s about windows and mirrors. What’s that about?
It’s about space, location, information and too many other things for me to go into here...

A few months ago, you mentioned that you had done some shoots--the art-type--of guys. Why aren’t any of them included?
I’m saving them for my next show.

Do you think of the model’s position as being demeaning?
That is a moral issue and depends on the reasons the model has for modeling. I try not to think about these things too much.

When someone performs in front of the camera, do you find that to be a position of power?
A position of power for me or the model? During the shoot, the power structure shifts back and forth between model and photographer. One can’t work without the other.

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