Interview: Richard Kern
People think I live this crazy, wild lifestyle.
Richard Kern doesn't look like the kind of guy who's spent the last 20 to 25 years taking pictures of young, naked girls. Now in his fifties, he's clean cut, almost collegial, and very approachable. Although his images aim to provoke, he makes you feel instantly at ease. No wonder young girls line up to take their clothes off for him.
Kern's images are unapologetically perverse, point-and-shoot portraits of girls either in their underwear or completely nude, posing provocatively. That sentence, however, does not do Kern's work justice. His photographs are seductively candid, and the girls mostly non-models from all backgrounds and of all shapes and sizes, are uniquely beautiful. We met up yesterday ahead of the opening of his latest exhibition in Paris.
Alice Cavanagh: Tell me about this series of work 'Medicated' [above and below]. How did this come about?
Richard Kern: She [points to one photo] was helping me on a shoot and she tells me she takes Adderall. I was thinking, 'OK what is that?' It's for ADD; instead of Ritalin, now they give Adderall. It's also the most abused drug in America. There's a huge black market and people take it recreationally, it's like speed. I know a bunch of people like, grown ups that grind it up and do it all the time.
This girl [points to another] has been on this stuff since she was 14, since her parents split up. She's on a lot more than this, though. Usually, like, with her, you can't sleep so they give you something to sleep; then they give you something to stay awake; then they give you something because you're depressed. This one, she had anxiety and some kind of OCD treatment. I also have photos of regular drugs, like cold and flu medicine. This whole series is legal drugs.
How do you find these girls?
Every time I do a casting I ask the girl if she takes any prescription drugs. There is a film I have done about this, just talking about when they started, why they started.
What draws you to a girl in the first place?
It's impossible to say, really. Like this girl [points to an image], when I saw her I didn't think she was going to be any good, but she turned out to be really, really good. But she's really tiny, [has] like a really thin face, but when she took off her clothes – what a body! She was a really good model. And you know, [as are] all of these... a lot of funny faces.
Are you shooting all of the time?
Not all the time, but most of the time. A lot of the shooting is going to be done this week. I'm shooting five days straight starting tomorrow, and that will be a big body of photographs. I do tours with Vice and we went to six countries and we shot for 30 days. That's the way a lot of that happens. And then, somewhere like Toronto happens to be a really good place for models and I'll just book, like, five days of solid shooting.
Do you think your pictures represent who you are in 'real life'?
It starts out as one thing and then it becomes your job, but it's a fun job. The one misconception, and you can ask my wife on that, too – is that people think I live this crazy, wild lifestyle. Like I'm going off to have sex with all these girls, but that's not happening.
It's really just a job? Do you ever want to try something else then?
Yeah. I do shoot [other things]. Well, not a tremendous amount of other things, but I've gone back a lot to filmmaking. I've made quite a few new films in the last couple years. But, I don't have to break out. You have your job, and you don't really have time for anything else.
I'm sure you have had to explain your work in the past, but how do you describe your approach?
I used to try to defend stuff, but there's no point because the moment you've started defending something, you've lost. So, I don't generally bother anymore. To me, it's all portraits, you know? Who knows what'll be happening in 50 years? But you see this work in 50 years and you're going to know not just the drugs that these people take but also what their lives were like from these photos. You see some of the same products in different households; it's weird. People leave all their shit out. I would shoot someone just based on their room, because that's the kind of stuff you're going to be looking at.
There's another series where every girl is in the same position, all different bedsheets – that's like 50 to 100 shots from that – with just the girl lying there. Someday I'll do some giant piece with it. Then, you see, it looks like no information but actually it's a lot of information.
Tell me about the cell phone series.
This was a series about cell phones and I started shooting it a little late for America because everyone has an iPhone in America. So these are all Eastern girls; girls from former communist countries: Poland, Bulgaria and these two [gesturing] are Russians. Occasionally if a girl shows up with a different phone then I'll shoot her. But I am shooting this because, in ten years this is going to look really good. Who knows what phones we will be using [then]?
Your wife Martynka was one of your models. Are you often attracted to your subjects?
I don't think it's any different than if you're in a room and a person's got their clothes on. It's the same thing. If you're at a job and it's business and you feel that it's someone that you have a weird connection with [then] that's going to happen. But, anybody that shoots like this, they're going to tell you that the excitement comes after you've shot the photos and you're at home looking at them. Then you think, "Oh, wow! This looks really good. This looks really thrilling."
My wife asks me that all the time, "Don't you ever get excited?" Sometimes I'll lie to her and say, "I felt something. I felt a twinge." Occasionally that happens. I was thinking [that], this trip in August, it happened twice. I remember two times, like, wow, that feeling.
I saw a behind-the-scenes video of a shoot you did with two girls, and they were so different. One seemed quite conservative about sex and the other was obviously much more open. The end result was the same, though: they both loved being naked and seemed to be so comfortable in front of the camera.
I think people might imagine that a girl without her clothes on is some kind of crazy girl. That's possible, but I would say any of these girls have some kind of exhibitionist streak, and it seems to me to be kind of common in a certain age group, I don't know, late teens to about 30. I get people that are late thirties and forties and I almost always know that they're at a certain point in their life when they're looking for some kind of excitement.
Do you like photographing older women?
It's exactly the same. It doesn't come up as much. An older woman – they wouldn't fit into 'Medicated'. Actually, they would fit into this, but I don't know if they would do it. I've shot a few older women naked and it feels weird to ask them. It just feels like a different thing. It takes a certain person to want to be naked and to be around other people of a certain age. When you're young, you'd do anything. You don't really give a shit. If someone asked me to get naked now, I mean, I've done it [but] I'd feel really stupid. I don't look so good naked.
Photograhy: Richard Kern courtesy Galerie Jousse Entreprise