Richard Kern, presents ‘Shot By Kern’, a frank and up-close documentary with VBS.TV which follows the notorious New York artist and pornographer, best known for his 80s films shot on 16mm, which featured the likes of No Wavers Sonic Youth and Lydia Lunch, as he embarks on a six-country European tour photographing young women in various states of undress and self-love for his worldwide art exhibitions, regularly published books, and features in the pages of Vice magazine.
From a shoot in London’s Royal Parks, to weed-smoking Parisian girls and a Belgian webcam strip, the ultimate outcome is a series that stealthily combines arousal and psychological examination in a heady mix. This intimate and provocative behind-the-scenes film gives a rare insight into Kern’s approach and relationships with his complicit, often adoring models, and will be available to view exclusively on VBS.TV in a number of episodes from 25 May 2010.
We were lucky enough to be one of the chosen few to have the chance to sit down and have a long talk to Richard Kern about the new series, girls, his work and his thoughts on the industry. Alisha Wetherill of SlamxHype had a great time chatting to the photographer who has single handedly changed photography as we know it today, sparking a huge influence over our current industry. Enjoy!
Alisha Wetherill: This latest debut season of Shot By Kern takes place in Europe, do you think you will go on to make other seasons of you shooting in other parts of the world?
Richard Kern: Well that’s what we’ve talked about. I hope there is money for that. That would be fantastic. I would love to do Asia, Russia, or Eastern European countries. We’ve talked about a bunch of things. We’ve talked about sending me to Argentina and a lot of South American places. But who knows, if there’s money we’re going.
A: What is Shot By Kern all about?
R: You’ll see me occasionally, but mostly you’ll see a naked girl walking around. If it has a naked girl walking around in it, is always good content for whatever the media outlet is. That’s why people like to see it. You know? That’s why people like to shoot it. If they shoot me shooting they’ve got to have a naked girl in there somewhere. So that’s always a plus for, I don’t care what the show is. I mean you’ve noticed there is not a lot of me in the actual Shot By Kern stuff.
I generally cast the girls that pretty much. They’re not fashion model-looking girls, they’re generally just regular girls. It’s not a girl you’re going to see in a fashion magazine, in general, it’s more like a real girl. And you get to see a little bit of how they live, and what they think about and all that stuff. There’s a wide variety of the kinds of women doing it. There were some we haven’t used, because they just didn’t work.
A: How do you go about choosing the girls who get to come to castings? How do you go about finding the girls you want to shoot on such short notice when you go to foreign cities?
R: Usually we’ve done a general casting before hand, and then we narrow it down and do another casting the night I arrive, and I go through a few of the girls to see who is going to work for us. There’s really slim pickings sometimes. But at some places, like in Toronto, where we weren’t shooting, but we did a casting, and I had to turn away about three insanely perfect girls. We were shooting four days and I just didn’t have time to shoot everybody there was. That city had a remarkably high ratio of beautiful women to shoot. And when I say beautiful women, I mean the ones we were doing on the show.
A: Is there a typical type of girl that you go for? What other characteristics do you look for?
R: I’m not looking for a sleazy, I can’t stand sleazy. I don’t like fetish-y, I don’t like suicide girl types. I mean it’s not that I don’t like them, it’s just I prefer… I shot girls with tattoos about 20 years ago, so I am more looking for people that aren’t as marked up. Although, there are a few in the series that have some marks on them.
A: You tend to stay away from tattoos and piercings now?
A: Has the prevalence of tattoos and piercings drastically changed over time and 15-20 years ago did you tend to really go for those kinds of girls?
R: Yeah, there was a period in the 90s where I was shooting. Girls in the early 90s were just starting to get tattoos, and it was more of a kind of special thing I guess. They started getting pierced, and I started to shoot that. That fad has come and gone I think. Well, I don’t know if it’s gone, but it’s definitely.. I don’t see girls wearing belly button rings anymore. I occasionally do, I think there’s one girl in that whole series that had a belly button ring. But if it was around 2000 or in the 90s you would’ve seen a lot more. Like every girl probably would’ve had one. There was one girl that’s wearing one, and it was like how did she get lost in this time warp, where was she? And not just an ordinary belly button ring, she had a big chain with a diamond hanging off it, like a stripper thing. And the thing for pubic hair, it’s all over the place. I was asking girls on this particular trip, beforehand part of the instructions I asked was, if the girls could grow out their arm pit hair or their bush that would be great. The more natural the better.
A: You’re meeting a lot of people for the first time, when you are doing your work. How do you go about breaking the ice? Or is that not really necessary with the kind of girls you are working with?
R: No, there is definitely a moment where, I’ve organized to shoot someone and I’ve talked to her in an email. Then there’s the moment when I walk in, and I’m like “Ok, so let’s see these clothes you have?” that’s usually where we start, and I say “start trying on these clothes” and we just get right into the work. There’s definitely always a “first moment”.
A: Do you ever have to do anything to make them feel at ease?
R: I say, “Could you lose those clothes? (laughs) could you lose the top, could you lose bra, you can keep your panties on.” Usually I’ve met them briefly before, I usually try to meet them at the casting a day or a week before. Then I talk to them for five or ten minutes. So that’s the initial step and I just ask them what they’re up for and what the limits are, things like that.
A: Will girls pretty much do anything for you now days?
R: (laughs) No, not by a long shot. I say 90 percent, no let’s say 70 percent of the girls I want to shoot, want to keep their pants on, their underpants, their panties, whatever they call them, they want to keep their panties on, which is fine with me. There’s a few that say they don’t care, I essentially am shooting them naked. These days I don’t really care.
A: It seems like you have a decent collection of panties that you travel with…
R: Yes, I have a gigantic box of them. In fact, I’m editing stuff from that same (European) trip, and it’s like man I wish I had more panties on this trip because I’ve got the same panties over and over again. Right now, I’m editing a movie that’s going to be just faces and panties. Girls wearing panties, their panty shot and their faces. It’s for this show that is happening in London. One of the videos, I’m trying to finish it up right now.
A: Is that another show with VBS?
R: Yes, VBS is doing another show in conjunction with this series. That’s probably why you’re interviewing me now. Because we are having the launch, show and videos and all that crap, in London starting next week. There’s going to be a show at a gallery with a bunch of the photos and some of the videos, then the actual TV show.
A: Can you tell me more about your relationship with VBS? How long have you been working with them? Well, you’ve essentially started paved the way for a lot of photographers and started a whole movement of a specific style of nude portraiture..
R: I don’t know about that, there were people shooting nudes for them long before I was working with them. I think I’ve been working with them, I can’t even say, maybe five years maybe more. But, the VBS thing that came about three years ago. That was the idea of the editor here in New York, Jesse Pearson, asked me if I wanted to do the show and it just turned out to be a really good thing. Because at the time this happened, I was just shooting all other kinds of stuff, but at the time the show started, it was getting to a point where it was getting harder for me to find some models. But this show has just made the models start pouring in.
A: Do you have a lot of say on the direction of the series?
R: Um, I have no direction (laughs), I sit there shooting, and they’re doing whatever they do. The director is generally the camera-person or the editor I would say. My objective in doing this is to get good photos for me. I don’t really care about anything else. I haven’t seen all the series to be perfectly honest. There’s nothing like watching yourself on screen looking like an idiot to cheer you up.
A: Yeah, sometimes it’s hard watching yourself on screen…
R: The only thing I see over and over is my thinning hair (laughs)… and my voice, it can be quite annoying.
A: The girls you normally work with, they’re not normally trained models, do you find it hard directing them? How do you get the perfect shot?
R: I’m only there for one purpose, and they’re only there for one purpose. I put them on the spot, when we first get there, I move them all around the house. I have a list of about 20 things I’d like to shoot. Then I try and knock out as many shots as I can before the time runs out.
A: When you are directing, how important is the intimacy between the director and model? How important is that?
R: Well that’s really important, they’ve got to be willing to do whatever they are doing. There was this girl on the European tour, she wouldn’t do anything. She said “No, I don’t want to do that, no I don’t want to do that”… She was a red head… She was an Italian, anyway…
A: You have a great relationship with Sonic Youth and Thurston Moore, he created a score for one of your documentaries. Can you tell me more about your relationship with them?
R: I mean, it’s just like that, I’ve known them forever. I did one of their first music videos. We grew up on the same street pretty much. I still talk to them fairly often. Thurston, just gave me some new music for the video I was talking about that I’m editing right now. Really sparse music. I see them all the time, I go to their events. Like Kim has something, I go to that. Thurston has something, I go to that. But, I don’t generally go out a lot. I’ve just known them forever.
A: What sort of music are you into at the moment?
R: All kinds I guess. Let’s see. I’ve been listening to this band, that I saw in Toronto, just recently called Dentata, it’s an all girl band. Joy Division, I’ve been listening to that, I guess everybody does. I have to think, wait let me just look at my ipod, that will tell me. I listen to talk radio to be honest. But for music… it says, the Jam, it says Sonic Youth, State of Alert, Small Faces, Type 0-. And that’s this week, you know, I’m all over the place with stuff. Type 0- because the singer just died and I photographed him once.
A: You had a magazine in the 80s called the Heroin Addict, but you later changed the name to Valium Addict. Why did you change the name?
R: Why did I change the name… Oh! Oh, Even though I never did heroin, I did actually do valium, at that time. I have done heroin since. When I did the magazine, it was before I had ever done that. But then I did actually take valium and that’s when I switched it to valium. There was a period, 6 months where I’d buy valium on the street and take them. It was so stupid. That was a long time ago.
A: With most of the girls you have been photographing lately, do you always have them smoke pot?
R: Yes, because I’m working on a book about pot smoking girls. It’s a big nostalgia fantasy for me, from when I was a kid. This was in the early 70s, I mean a long time ago, it was the end of the hippy era, and I spent a lot of time in fields or wherever smoking pot with people. Smoking pot with girls, at festivals. Everyone’s sitting around naked smoking pot, that kind of shit. That’s a big fantasy, a big nostalgia thing for me. Two things I’ve fantasized the most about. I don’t know if fantasy is the right word. Maybe it’s what I’m most nostalgic for, is girls, when I was smoking pot back then, that’s the age the girls were and usually the other girls (I photograph) look like the girls I hung out with. Like I have a friend who just paints beer cans and girls faces, so it’s kind of like that. That’s two things he’s into I guess…
A: How long have you been married for now? And how did you meet your wife?
R: Three years, she was one of my models. I met her before she was modelling for me actually. She used to edit a magazine that I worked for. Then I met her as a model, she was a model and a magazine editor.
A: What are your thoughts on how the way that publishing has changed over the past 20 years or so, more specifically the push towards online media?
R: Well one thing that’s really changed, is this show and series launches next week, you know, even a year ago, you’d have to do all the press like two months ahead of time. So you’d have deadlines. Now that’s no longer a problem. I mean they’re waiting until last minute, for everything, everyone waits till the last minute. There is also a tonne of more media. A tonne of it. And I’ve never heard of any of it. Who has time to read all this stuff? There’s too much other stuff to do, too many naked girls to photograph.
A: Thanks for your time. I’m looking forward to seeing more of your photographs and watching future seasons of your show on VBS.
R: Thanks. I can’t wait to see them too. I’ll watch them when I’m 60 or 70.
There will also be an exhibition of Kern’s work at Rove Gallery, London, opening on the 21st – details below.
Shot by Kern – Private view:
20th May 2010
Rove Gallery, Hoxton Square, London
Exhibition runs from 21st May – 26th June.
Shot by Kern – Private view:
20th May 2010
Rove Gallery, Hoxton Square, London
Exhibition runs from 21st May – 26th June.