Interview originally published on ACCLAIMMag.com
15 Minutes with Richard Kern
"You want to push boundaries and you feel you’ve gotta do something to prove yourself."
I’m sure most girls’ fifteen minutes with Richard Kern go down a whole lot differently to mine but I’d been looking forward to this for a long time. The New York based photographer has been shooting for decades, which he’ll continually remind you. He began shooting way back in the 80s – debaucherous shit that you might not want to show your kids. Now, he's most known for shooting barely-clothed girls. Sometimes front on, sometimes up skirts. With a portfolio that would strike some as sexist and others as sexy, it’s important to note that Kern, like his work, is clean, direct and up for a laugh. In between the madness of CARBON, we found a quiet room to get to know each other in.
You’ve been shooting for a really long time now – girls in particular.
Yeah it feels like forever! It really does. It feels like my whole life. The girls are just one part of my work.
Isn’t that the dream though?
To shoot naked girls – Is that the dream? Maybe for some. Honestly though when I started, I was maybe 28 years old and I thought “I’ll start doing this because it’ll be really cool when I get old,” and well – here I am.
And does it feel cool?
I don’t know. Sometimes it’s cool but there’s also all this other stuff that goes along with it that’s not so good. There’s a negative view that some people have of me for doing it.
I guess it’s very easy for some to look at a male photographer and judge him in that negative way because of the content of his work.
You know what, it hasn’t changed. You’d think the political outlook of all this stuff would change, would go up and down, up, down but it’s been the same.
Even before I was shooting naked girls, that movie Fingered in particular had a fucking lot of negative vibes directed towards it originally. Then over time some of the same people who were complaining about it, feminist groups in particular completely turned around and it became this sort of feminist movie.
Sort of like how feminists are either against porn or all for it in a way that liberates female sexuality. It’s strange though how time changes opinions.
Exactly but the problem is that I don’t think it’s ever going to really turn around – you know a social climate where it’s okay for old white guys to shoot naked girls.
Why do you think girls want to shoot with you?
It’s funny I have this one model in New York who I’ve been working with a lot lately and she wants to be an actress. Someone told her if she worked with me, it would boost her acting career. I don’t know if it will. In general I don’t really know why people are… I think they’re just doing it to see what happens and to have some fun.
I’ve heard you say you like to shoot people that nobody knows. How do you find your models?
At the very beginning I was just shooting my friends – like everyone does when they’re starting. With time it just spread out from there and as soon as I started shooting for VICE and filming Shot By Kern, all of a sudden my model drought was over. Before that there were periods were I even went on Craigslist, which lets just say only got two good models out of that.
It’s definitely easier now. I have girls writing to me often. In the past six months too I’ve had Australian girls contacting me since Shot By Kern has been screened here.
Have you shot anyone then since being down here?
Yes I shot a girl yesterday and tomorrow before I leave I’m shooting another one. It’s really good to finally be able to do that.
On set what are you looking for or trying to create?
I don’t really know until its there, until it’s happening. Something that triggers a certain feeling or reaction. I only see it a couple of time a shoot, maybe.
Are you often turned on whilst shooting?
No – I wish I was! I was a long time ago. My wife always asks, “Did you get excited today?” like she wants me to be excited over what I’m shooting. But any photographer will tell you the excitement comes after.
How was it yesterday?
It was really good. I didn’t expect it to be. It had been a while though so I don’t know yet if it was that I got a good photo or I just hadn’t done it in so long. It’s like if you don’t masturbate for a long time and then you do, it’s like “Whoa! I forgot about this!”
That’s the best analogy I’ve ever heard. Your name is very recognisable now; people know your work. I’ve seen Shot By Kern– girls rock up, take their clothes off, they know what’s going down.
I think they do. I’ve asked some girls before if the shoot was what they were expecting or if they expected something crazier or more exciting. It’s hard to tell what’s going through people’s heads.
And what’s going through your head? Is this where the voyeur aspect creeps in?
All that voyeurism stuff is simply what guys want to be looking at. I don’t care what guys say, it’s what they’re thinking – and you know a lot of women are thinking it too. But obviously there is a fine line between exploitation and that’s something I’ve always been aware and careful of.
Well it’s so important. Possibly even more so in the social climate we live in now. We all claim to be open and comfortable with nudity.
Everybody’s comfortable with it until it happens to them.
Do you think my generation is just attention hungry?
I think every generation is exactly the same. It just plays out differently. At least, since the 60s, it seems that way to me. There’s just a certain age that everybody gets to and we begin looking for certain kind of kicks. You want to push boundaries and you feel you’ve gotta do something to prove yourself.
What have you proved?
I’ve proved that I can sustain my livelihood and myself by doing what I want. That’s always been the goal.
Is it strange being that guy now that people look up to?
I can’t say I ever thought it would happen but as I’ve said, I’ve just been doing this a long time, I’m kind of old now – it’s just another part of the process.
Quickly speaking of process and progress, has digital photography and the way the whole world is turning digital changed your work?
It’s made it shitloads easier! Especially shooting and editing films. The software is all there. But the downside of course is that everybody is doing it. The number of photographers has increased exponentially. Anyone can take a photo. It hasn’t made it harder, just less mysterious.
So how do you stay relevant?
I’ve just been doing this so long, pushing people’s buttons, spreading an iniquity but for me, I wouldn’t know how else to do it. There’s always been a bit of provocativeness about my work that has bugged people. When you hit a nerve with someone they remember you more.
Whatever you’re doing now, if in twenty years time you’re still doing it and you’ve done it and done it and kept going, people will know your name.