Richard Kern is a contributor to Vice and Purple. He has published 11 books. His films and photographs have been exhibited at MOMA, at The Whitney Museum and in over 30 solo shows around the world.
Kern spoke to us from his apartment in New York’s East Village about his new book Shot by Kern and its accompanying video of the same title, both out by Taschen.
Playboy.com: You grew up in a small town in North Carolina where your dad was a newspaper editor. Do you think his job played a role in you wanting to become a photographer?
Richard Kern: Yeah, it definitely had a huge effect on me. Mainly because of him taking photographs. It was a small Southern newspaper, everybody did everything. Whenever there was an assignment to take a photograph I would go with him and it would be like, "Oh, we’re going to do something fun. We’re going to do something beside sit around and do nothing." And he had a darkroom at the office and he showed me [how it worked]. You have to picture a small town in North Carolina in the '50s and '60s in—there was nothing to do. And [photography] was like some magical thing. I remember seeing photos of the moon landing come in over the wire at his newspaper office. It would come in over a machine—you’d sit there and watch it print out. So photography always meant an excuse to do something exciting. And it still is.
Playboy.com: My dad was a journalist and for a while he was a single dad and if he couldn’t get a babysitter he’d take me to the newsroom and I was obsessed with the wire and how you would see the news come out first and then hear it on the radio after. I sound like I’m ancient, talking like that…
Kern: How old are you?
Playboy.com: I’m 36.
Kern: And they still had the wire then!
Playboy.com: Yeah, they did! And the main computer at the office was actually a room that you could walk into—the computer room.
Kern: I remember my father having to go to computer school at the big changeover…
Playboy.com: So you went from small-town newspaper photography to art school. When did you start thinking about nudes? It seems, looking at a lot of your pictures, that it’s not just, "I appreciate the female form." I feel like there’s an interaction between you and the models. There’s a palpable tension created there, between both of you. So when did that become a thing for you, do you think, that trajectory?
Kern: I was mainly just taking what I would call surrealist photos. Photos that were dark and weird, kind of Ralph Gibson-y. Up until the '80s. All through the times I was making the films I made, back in the '80s. And when I was making the films I developed this bad drug habit. And when I finally got off drugs in ‘88 or so, I was completely broke. And you could buy black and white film for like two bucks a roll. I had a darkroom that someone let me use. So I just started switching over. And then I realized—I was still a young guy then—I could ask girls I knew if they’d like to model for me. And then if they would like to model naked. And it was just like fucking heaven all of a sudden—me being shy and these girls….Even when I was making the films I’d have some nudity and stuff in there. It was just so thrilling to have girls take their clothes off. And there’s no strings, there’s no nothing. We’re just taking photos. And they liked it, I liked it, it was a fun thing. And then it just kind of developed from there to this thing. I was also making videos at the same time. But this became this thing I did for fun. And now I’m looking at it going, "Jesus Christ, I’ve got to get out of this naked girl thing." [laughs]
Playboy.com: Oh, whatever. [laughs]
Kern: No, it’s just, you know, I’m always trying to figure out some way where it’s not just a naked girl standing there. Although if you have that Taschen book there’s a lot of that in there.
Playboy.com: There's definitely a lot of naked girls in these pictures, yeah.
Kern: Because I look at the book thinking, "This is a tit shot." "This is a tit shot." "This is a butt shot." I want it to be something else.
Playboy.com: It is something else. There’s such a presence from your models. You feel conscious of the power of nakedness, whether it’s sexy or ugly or awkward. It doesn’t seem like any kind of staged accident, like you tricked some girl and there she is! Naked! These aren’t naked cheerleader–type situations. There’s this very present, consensual person looking back at the viewer.
Kern: Yeah, exactly. There’s definitely some artificial stuff going on in porn in general. Do you even consider Playboy to be porn?
Playboy.com: No, I don’t. I mean, some people do—like my dad.
Kern: [Laughs] There was a point when Barely Legal called me. Barely Legal was just starting up, it was the first issue. I knew the editor from when I was doing films. And he said, "Do you have any really clean-cut young girls that aren’t all fake and artificial? We’ll give you a couple of thousand bucks for 10 photos." I was like, "What!" It was the golden age of porn. I quickly shifted over to that. I would shoot that kind of stuff for one week of the month and then I could go back to doing the other stuff I liked the other three weeks and I was paying for everything. But it did become this thing where I knew a couple of photographers and they would have these big inspiration books. And they would just have the girls flip through the pages, "Let’s do this pose, let’s do this one…" And for a lot of that stuff, I could shoot one in an hour. I stacked up two or three a day. You just run through those poses like, Now she’s holding her butt open, now she’s got her legs spread [laughs]. This stuff. And it definitely turned into something else. It just [makes gross noise]. Not fun. I think it was fun, but it was weird. It was very weird.
Playboy.com: I could see that. And then this is definitely more on your own terms. And I have to say that in the accompanying film there were so many great moments, like those girls singing in the shower?
Kern: The Russians.
Playboy.com: They were amazing.
Kern: That was some cute song they said they learned when they were in school.
Playboy.com: It was great. Light and silly and sexy at the same time.
Kern: I’m actually almost more interested in the films than in photos these days. I’ve been doing music videos and stuff again. There’s a couple that are right up Playboy’s alley. And then there’s some straight ones too.
Playboy.com: The difference between girls who are used to posing nude and those who aren’t comes through pretty clearly on the videos. What’s your deal with asking your models to brush their teeth or sit on the toilet? Are you trying to provoke a different feeling in them?
Kern: Just trying to get them to put down their defences and forget about it. Just do whatever they’re doing. A lot of times, I know when I’m getting photographed, I’m standing there thinking, "I am getting photographed, I am getting photographed."
Playboy.com: Yeah. It’s so hard. I hate getting my picture taken.
Kern: Same here. It can go either way. Sometimes I have to, for my own stuff, my personal stuff, I have to say, "Hey you’re posing." But then if it’s a job, for a fashion mag for example, the posing bit helps quite a bit. If the model knows when she looks good, it just speeds everything up.
Playboy.com: In one of the pictures you’ve got a girl holding two books: The Voyeur, by Alain Robbe-Grillet and The Eye, by Vladimir Nabokov, and I thought that was cool in and of itself, but also I liked the Nabokov reference because as I’d been looking at your book I kept having the word “nymphet,” from Lolita, go through my brain; a kind of “nymphet” refrain.
Kern: Well that book is one that I’ve had in my house forever; I got it because of the cover. And Robbe-Grillet is one that he made a lot of weird, weird sex movies. I don’t know if you ever saw them?
Playboy.com: No, I have to check that out.
Kern: They’re kind of weird, not exactly sex movies, but arty sex movies. And because of that I picked up the book. And the other one was story of the eye, that Bataille book, but that’s a series I’ve been doing. Trying to shoot stuff that’s disappearing. Like books.
Playboy.com: Don’t say that!
Kern: I’ve been doing girls in libraries. And it’s extremely hard to go in a 19-year-old’s house where there’s a library. That’s hard these days.
Playboy.com: What do most 19-year-old girls have instead?
Kern: I went in one the other day. I said, “Oh, this couch is from Ikea, oh, this bedspread is from Ikea.” Everything is from Ikea, usually. And there’s a giant TV. That’s pretty much what people seem to have these days. For this same kind of series I’ve shot girls with their stereos—they happen to have a real stereo instead of just an iPod or an iPhone or something. I’m doing watches, which you never see.
Playboy.com: Girls don’t wear watches anymore?
Kern: Not really. Usually the girl is wearing it like a piece of jewelry instead of like a watch. I’m just looking for stuff that’s disappearing, lately.
Playboy.com: There’s such an element of surprise on the girls’ faces when you squirt them with soap. I think it’s probably identical to when they’re getting come on. Their expressions are so revealing. They’re like, "No it’s cool, it’s cool, I like it." Or they’re like, "No, I don’t like it, but I’m just gonna do it." Kind of staunch either way.
Kern: It’s amazing to me. There was this period where I was thinking, this is the most politically incorrect thing I could do. And I’m asking the girls, “Look, uh, do you care if I squirt soap on you? It’s going to look really porno. It’s going to look like come.” And they’ll be like, “That’s funny! Let’s do it!” I’m always so shocked that they don’t care. There’s a movie of that at the very end of that DVD of these girls just getting squirted. It’s hard to hold any kind of expression when it’s happening.
See Richard Kern's photographs of Sasha Grey for Playboy HERE.
Get Shot by Kern HERE.