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Richard Kern / Shot By Kern

The New York photographer and filmmaker on his latest book, his attitude towards work, trends in personal grooming, and those jealous boyfriends. Note: This article contains NSFW images.

Interview By Porochista Khakpour, July 24, 2013

Richard Kern was a key figure in the Lower East side No Wave scene of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, producing short films that are considered central works in the Cinema of Transgression movement and eventually shooting videos and album covers for the likes of Sonic Youth and Marilyn Manson. But it is Kern’s work as a still photographer and his portraiture, epitomized in the groundbreaking 1995 book New York Girls, for which he’s become legendary. Kern’s naturalistic, often nude, photos of amateur “real” girls shot in "real" settings captured the streetwise spirit of a New York underground—a raw but still sexy counterpoint to the mainstream notion of glamour. 

In Kern’s nudes, brazen sexuality can be quirky, cool, silly, sensual, and endearing—or just plain bad ass.

The North Carolina-born Kern’s photography has been regularly featured in Vice Magazine, where he’s been a contributor for years. Vice's Jesse Pearson, now editor of Apology, even created "Shot By Kern", a popular adults-only video series on VBS.TV in which Kern roams the cities of the world shooting women in his unique style. Over the course of the series, Kern visited numerous European countries, Mexico, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States with a video crew documenting his process and subjects. What we didn’t see in the clips, however, was how the photographs came out. The new Shot By Kern (Taschen) collects 300 images culled from the travels. Shot By Kern comes with an hour-long video by Kern featuring original music by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore.

Nothing Major asked Porochista Khakpour, who has posed with her clothes on for Kern, to check in with the New York photographer and talk Shot By Kern, the book.—Ed.

In 2006, I was a broke East Village 28-year-old. I did bar reviews and occasional celebrity and arts journalism for pretty glossies that paid nothing. I had just nabbed an agent for the novel I’d been working on for years; the agent came from a writer I was dating, who was also dating several other broke twentysomething writer girls. Before the agent shopped around my novel, she asked for a headshot to include with my package. I argued—why would a writer need a headshot? She said something about it “adding” to my overall profile and “well, you’re a lovely young lady.” I was barely eating those days—due to a combination of poverty and eating disorder the East Village girls I knew all shared and had shared for a good decade at that point. I felt frustrated but felt it wouldn’t make or break, so I agreed to get one. The only professional photographer I really knew was through another ex, that Midwest ex who ran a high-art porn website back then. He’d just featured esteemed nudie photographer Richard Kern and we’d met him for sushi. I immediately liked him, his gentle demeanor and upright manners, his silver hair and heavy framed glasses, his shyness versus the rawness of what he did. So my ex wrote him:

On Jan 10, 2006, at 11:05 PM, ____ ______ wrote:

> Hey Richard,
> How goes it?
> You remember my ex, Porochista? Well, she just finished her genius novel and is in need of a portrait. What do you charge for something like that?
> If you're at all entertained by the idea, she's at: ____ ______
> Oh, and she lives in NYC now... Pretty close to you, actually.
> -Jason


And he wrote back:

From: richard kern

Date: Wed, 11 Jan 2006 07:05:20 -0500
To: ____ ______

Subject: Re: Head shot?

where do you live now?  since i've seen you last, you were going to get together with her, you had your whole relationship and now she's your ex. if she wants to call me and see when i have some free time i can shoot it digital for nothing.  doesn't cost me anything and i have a good camera.

Porochista's headshot, Photo by Richard Kern

I told my agent who Googled him and had a near heart-attack. I warned her these would be tame pics, that certainly Richard knew how to take a normal headshot too. I got a blow-out that day and put on too much makeup and in an hour, we were done. The whole time I felt incredibly relaxed—Richard occasionally directed, but very gently, very minimally. I imagined going further with a shoot like that would only be slightly less comfortable, an idea which surprised me. 

In the end, the digital photos were great. Except more than half prominently featured my nipples, very much showing through a thin shirt I had not thought twice about. Kern had to have noticed and he had said nothing, because, well, he was Richard Kern.

That’s how we began our conversation. Richard seemed to remember.

Richard Kern: Oh yeah! [laughter]

Porochista Khakpour: Totally nippled out. But my novel sold in the end!
RK: Oh, great.

Shot by Kern, US. Photo by Richard Kern

Anyway, onto you and Shot By Kern, which I think is your best book. It’s a really gorgeous and hilarious collection of some of my favorite images of yours—girls brushing their teeth, girls with their medication bottles, girls smoking pot, girls lying in their beds, and even girls with thermometers in their butts. It’s inspired and based a bit on your great behind-the-scenes Vice show of the same name. Did Taschen approach you again?
I did three other books with them and he’s super loyal and I guess it was time for me to do another book. And I was supposed to do a couple things with Vice but then they kinda killed their books. It’s funny, I was so paranoid: if I call it Shot by Kern is Vice going to get upset? I still shoot for them but they don’t do that show. They are beyond that at this point.

The new Vice is a different monster altogether. I associate you with their earlier era.
I would say the middle era. I still do stories every other month. But print. But the middle period—I feel like the first period was that really crazy period where the guy Gavin was there and Terry [Richardson] was doing every single cover.

Photo by Elena Geroska

Well, I love the meta aspect of this book. We get shots of you taking the shots.
Well, all those photos of me in the book weren’t my choice. It was my editors’ choice. For me, there would have been no photos of me. With the show, it kinda demystified the whole shooting process and humanizes me, I think. It still happens that people are freaked out—but most of the girls I’m working with have seen my show, cause that’s how I come in contact with them in the first place—they can watch the show and see what it’s like.

Shot By Kern. Photo by Richard Kern

So you feel the show has helped you? 
It helped a lot. Except unfortunately it screens on TV a lot in France and Italy so every time it airs I get some models writing, but they are all over there. I still get quite a few here. There are about 10 girls I’m waiting to shoot, but I can’t get around to it.

I used to read about all the old punk Alphabet City girls coming to your door at all hours—does that sort of real myth still hold?
Not to my door, no. [laughs] It’s email. But I did actually meet a girl in FedEx who said she wanted to model. That happened about two months ago. Her boyfriend was so pissed off, I can tell. But I don’t go up and say, "Hey you want to model?"

And you’re also still doing music videos.
I’ve done a few. I’ve done maybe four or five in the last few years. I just did one for a band called Is Tropical. That’s always fun.

Face to Panty Ratio (2011) from Richard Kern featuring music by Thurston Moore.

Your early music videos were so iconic. But that’s a generation thing. I might know that but someone who’s 20 doesn’t know that.
It’s weird. I really like doing them. I’ve been doing a lot more film stuff, non-naked-girl stuff. I’m going to shoot two girls on Wednesday, but I haven’t shot any in ages, because I just don’t know what to do with them these days.

What’s “ages” for you?
Let’s see, the last time I shot a girl was might have been two months, three months ago. I mean, I’ve shot some things with girls in them but I haven’t taken a model, gone to her house—well, I did one, but I wasn’t into it. Anyway, I don’t do it all the time. The thing about that Vice show that was so fantastic was we’d go out for one month shooting every day, so you’d get tons of stuff. And once you get into the groove, you can just work like a machine.

Let’s back up—why do you feel like you don’t know what to do with the naked girls anymore?
Usually right after a book, I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m looking at that book and thinking Huh, this page has tits, this page has tits, this page has tits—oh, it’s a tit book! Whatever that means. And right now, I’m trying to get ready for a show here in New York in September and I’m having an incredibly hard time figuring out what’s a good photo. I’m gonna show some of the girls with medication, that’s easy for me. I like those photos. But then if it’s just pretty girls, I don’t even know what a shot is anymore.

Shot By Kern, Mexico. Photo by Richard Kern 

How many women have you shot?
It’s not as many as you would think. I had a friend over here, she was giving me a critique, what she thought I should do for my show. She’s 58 years old. And she was pointing at a photo of a girl with, you could see her shaved puss though the panties, and hair on top of it—like she only shaves the lower part and you can kinda see it through the panties. And she said, “Does this girl shave it like that, because my daughter is starting to grow pubic hair and I’m wondering if it’s going to grow like that?” And this is a woman who knows everything—she’s a pretty big artist. I realized I know stuff like that and she doesn’t. That’s what I can put on my tombstone!

I could get a great look at certain trends, evolutions in how women have looked in past few decades, when I examine the spectrum of your work.
Yeah, definitely.

Shot By Kern, Sweden. Photo by Richard Kern 

One of the things that you said that was interesting was that kids don’t get tattoos anymore. I thought of your early work, all women with dyed hair and tattoos, pre-Suicide Girls.
But now I’m kinda liking some tattoos on some girls, if it’s not overdone, you know.

I feel kids today are so much more conservative than we Gen X-ers are.
Definitely. Well, you’re a Gen X-er; I’m a Baby Boomer. But this is Generation Geek. I like to say that, I like to put that out there, because it is.

How so?
It’s just, so many people identify themselves as nerds or geeks as if it’s a proud thing, that’s what I’m saying. But as far as body shape and image and that stuff, I think the most dramatic change has been the hair sculpting and arriving of bare pubis—and now it’s come back to the ‘70s again, thank god.

Yeah, I feel like only women my age are still into Brazilian bikini waxes.
Yeah. In some of my photos, esp the landing strip kind, that really dates it.

Shot By Kern, US. Photo by Richard Kern

Sasha Grey is in this book and—
She was one of the main people that brought back that look, the hair. She was one of the only porn stars that had a bush. And that became such a fetish, they all started doing it.

Exactly. And she has small boobs and no obvious plastic surgery.

Shot By Kern, US. Photo by Richard Kern

I wonder about this younger generation. Much has been written about their relationship with sex. You know, with Youtube renderings of sex being so accessible. We had to seek out porn. Now everyone has seen everything at a young age. And yet they are more conservative maybe.
It would be hard to generalize but I know what you mean. There is less of a stigma attached to being naked for the girls. But it still happens often—that the day this book came out, the day I got copies of it, I get this official legal looking email from this girl I shot like 10 times: "Please Mr. Kern, take me off your website, off your book, off anything, when I shot these photographs I was going through a difficult time in my life"—I’m reading this and my heart is just pounding, I’m freaking out thinking "Holy shit, this looks like a lawsuit." At 18 she was wild and crazy and by 21 she is completely reformed. A lot of times it’s a boyfriend or something.

A lot of these kids want to get married early. My friends in their 30s are single and my friends in their 20s are getting married or engaged.
Well, they will be single when they are in their 30s!

Ha! So what do you do when the girls contact you wanting their images gone?
I take everything off, that I can take off. It’s easier just to make someone happy than to go through all that shit. 

Shot By Kern, Poland. Photo by Richard Kern

And you mentioned the boyfriends. I’ve often wondered about that. Are they a big problem?
There was one really hilarious situation where I was shooting this girl and her boyfriend was there, they were both about 19 . . . [long pause] this publication is not German is it? What is it, American?

American, yeah.
Okay, it was a German guy. It was a bi-level place, and she’s lying naked on the bed and I’m shooting and I can hear him upstairs talking to his friend: "I fucking keel him, I keel him, who the fuck does he think he is," in a German accent and then he sticks his head, upside down and goes, "You said you only show that to me, it was special for me"—and I was like, "Look, what’s going on?" and she was like, "Oh he doesn’t like me modeling". She was supposed to shoot for Shot by Kern a week later and we’re all there that morning and she doesn’t show up—she calls and says "I’m sorry, I’m having trouble with my boyfriend." And I said, "Hey, you’re gonna be split up with that guy within two weeks, I’m telling you, it’s over," and I saw her six months later and yes of course that’s what happened. Here’s advice to the boyfriends: encourage them to do whatever they want, never say anything, because otherwise it’s over—trying to control a woman, forget it! 

Shot By Kern, Russia. Photo by Richard Kern

Definitely! You get it. You know, I think about your colleagues, like Terry Richardson and how many problems he’s had and how he’s always under fire—you seem to escape all that.
Well, he went through a period where he was fucking asking for it. He was doing some crazy stuff. I understand you’re in a certain world and everyone around you is part of your world and no one ever says anything so why would you think anything was wrong. Whatever happened, I can see why he got into the situations that turned out to be problems.

But you’ve always made people feel at ease. You are a nice guy, everyone says that.
I am generally so restrained that when I was younger women would say, "Are you gay or something?! Because I’m putting out all the signals here and you’re just ignoring them."

You are just very mild-mannered.

There is nothing creepy with you. And too mild-mannered can also be creepy.
Oh, I can be creepy, don’t worry.

Ha! But I mean, your wife is friends with a lot of your subjects and she’s a great artist in her own right. Maybe that’s helped?
Maybe. I think the Vice show had a lot to do with it. On the show people saw what it was going to be like. I had a worse reputation when I made films. 

People now know you. Your work never feels disrespectful or exploitative. It feels like the women want to be there and are very much steering the ship somehow.
I try to think of the reason the girl is actually naked. The girl has to have some reason to be scantily clad. Though I look at photos where I’m like, "Why is this girl standing there holding this when she has no top on?"

I love the girl making a salad naked. The narrative there makes sense to me somehow.
Well, I’ve seen my wife do that. Especially if you’re looking through a window as that shot is. 

Shot By Kern, Bulgaria. Photo by Richard Kern.

It feels ‘70s-beautiful. Or the girl watching TV naked with the remote in her hand. Here we are talking during a heat wave in NYC and I see that and I think "Totally."
That’s totally believable. Actually girls do stand around a lot in their panties—I believe.

I think that’s sort of true. And I think you have a large female fan-base. 
I have no idea. No clue. I never really think about it. I wish I knew.

What about fashion? Are you done with fashion photography?
If there was some way I could make money, I’d be doing it, but it doesn’t seem to be working for me. I mean, I shoot some fashion stuff for Vice but some people would say it’s not fashion. I’d rather shoot portraits. 

Would you even want to shoot for, say, Vogue?
Fuck yes, of course, anything that pays I’d be happy to do it! 

Even if it meant changing your aesthetic?
Yeah! Definitely. "Could you come in and imitate Terry Richardson?" Why of course I can! I gotta work, I got to make a living. A photographer’s motto: I’ll shoot anything. That’s probably your motto too: I’ll write anything.

Shot By Kern, US. Photo by Richard Kern

Sure. Yeah. Sometimes I say no—I hate the idea of cheerleading things I am not into but yeah, for the most part.  Especially in New York—it’s hard to make a living. The city humbles you constantly.

Your best known book might be New York City Girls. Is the city still a muse for you?
Definitely. When people say where would you like to live, I really can’t think of anywhere else.

Same here.
I like New York. 

Same with me. So do you know what’s next?
No. You caught me at the post-partem period.

I know that feeling from when you finish a book.
It’s just . . . summer for one thing. If I could figure out what this next show is going to be, everything will be great. I mean, I have plenty to do. I’m not depressed—it’s just, who knows what I’m going to be doing next. Probably the same thing.

See more of Richard Kern's photographs as well as previews of his "Medicated, Etc." show and Contact High book at richardkern.com.


Shot By Kern is $40 from Taschen.