Kern's photography and films have been both influential and controversial.
Coming out of the film underground, Kern initially gained notoriety
for his controversial "The Cinema of Transgression." Kern has often
collaborated with with Lydia Lunch and is currently house photographer
Kern's most recent photograghy book, Model
Release just hit the shelves and
it is his sexiest collection yet. His previous book New
York Girls is the topic of much
of this conversation. Kern lives in New York City.
Laurence: What have you been doing with yourself lately?
You did films for a while in the eighties, and photography of course,
but until recently you have been lying low.
Kern: I did a bunch of photography shows, in New York,
Paris, London, Tokyo, and Denmark. That took up the last six months.
Those shows ended in March, and then I just started shooting again.
And I have been trying to find perverse people to shoot.
I am excited because tomorrow an eight-month pregnant Asian woman
is coming over who wants to shoot. That will be interesting. Anything
that's different. Yesterday I shot some photographs of Type O Negative's
lead singer Peter Steele with two porn stars. The shots will be
used on the cover of a porn mag and as the cover for their new single.
It's the same thing that I've always have been doing. Nothing has
What was your first trade when you started; films, photography,
or performance art?
I started with photography when I was sixteen. I was an art major
in college. I was a sculptor. I made all kinds of stuff. Photography
has been the constant thing, and filmmaking, which I still like
to do, but photography is much more immediate. I have a film in
the drawer, but I haven't edited it, though I have been talking
about it forever. I'll be like Russ Meyer when he talks about
The Bra of God. I'll talk about it for twenty years but never
finish it. It's all from the photo sessions that were in the book,
and some that weren't. Things like a guy sucking his own dick and
coming in his own face. Girls shooting water out of their butts.
Fun stuff. Anything weird.
It's important for you to be hard and push the envelope with your
Yeah though it's important for me to be real! No more fake blood.
I didn't shoot anybody cutting themselves and all that trendy shit
because that's all over the place now, and everybody's doing it.
Danielle Willis. And there's a woman who lives here in New York
named Otter. Those people are way out there.
That was pretty good. I think that I saw it on TV, on some cable show.
I don't know how she does it! She just shoots flames out of her pussy.
That was pretty intense. I saw her do that and I saw her drawing blood
and then drinking it. That was revolting.
Otter lives in Amsterdam now. Her thing now is her fire-breathing
How much is photography observation and how much is it participation
during a photo-shoot? I ask that because there are photographers like
Witkin and Gatewood who often become more involved with there subjects.
I try to get people to do interesting things. Sometimes I get lucky,
and somebody wants to do something strange and really hard, like this
pregnant woman. I like to encourage people. When I shoot now, I shooting
specifically for a magazine, so it has to be soft.
But your own personal interest and your point of view on your subject
is always voyeuristic and removed?
Yeah, vouyeuristic. I just shot a guy who was hanging from the ceiling
and his head lands right in the toilet. He's naked. I guess that's
When I think of your photography I don't perceive too much self-involvement
or self-portraits. Sometimes Joel-Peter Witkin or Charles Gatewood
will be involved in their subjects. They do some self-portraits as
I'm not in my photos. But I made a movie where I'm in the whole movie,
"My Nightmare." I usually stay out of the picture.
What do you think of the idea that you are exploiting these young
women by photographing them?
The person who says that the most is my ex-girlfriend (laughter).
She says it all the time. She used to be really into modeling. She's
all over the pages of New York Girls. Now she says "I don't
want to do it anymore. The women get nothing. Then men get all the
money and the glory. Then, the women get their naked pictures all
over the place." Nobody else has said anything. I don't think that
I'm exploiting them because I pay them and give them photographs.
They always want to do it. It's not like I'm holding a gun to their
Maybe people think that these women are in some cases drug users and
you give them money when they are in a vulnerable position. They are
desperate. They'll do anything in that condition but regret it afterwards.
Maybe you are taking advantage of them behind closed doors? Who knows?
I wish. But there are not many drug users in the book. Maybe a few.
I can't think of one instance where the person bought drugs with the
money that I gave them. You'll have better luck having someone model
for you right after they have split up with their boyfriend.
Why the title New York Girls?
I was trying to think of a focus for the book. The photos were either
shot in this apartment in the East Village or my old apartment, all
in New York City. A few elsewhere, but for the most part these photos
were site specific. I read a review which said how "California girls
are blonde and have tans, well according to this Richard Kern book
all the girls in New York are scary and pale, and tattooed and pierced,
and scary looking." They kept on saying "scary looking." Well, that's
the look that I looking for on their face.
When you have a photo session you take a lot of photos. A photo is
basically a split second surrounded by the rest of time. How do you
know when to shoot the picture?
Bruce Weber 101: "Shoot as much as you can afford to shoot." I shoot
a roll for each set-up but the other night I shot five rolls for the
same stupid set-up so I knew that I would get it right, and that they
(the magazine) would get the shot that they wanted. For me, photography
is editing. That's going to be my new motto. Some photographers take
one or two shots so it's like a painting.
Do you still associate with some of those film people like Nick Zedd
and Lydia Lunch?
I still talk to Lydia pretty often. I still see Nick. He shows his
films at Squeezebox, on Friday nights in New York. Lydia tours all
the time all over the place. I see Jim Foetus all over the place.
I guess that he is still doing music. I haven't had a conversation
with him in years. Most of the people I worked with don't live here
in New York anymore. Lung Leg moved back to Minneapolis, back home.
You took most of the photographs over the past ten years. Where are
the New York Girls now?
(Flipping through the pages of book)) #1: She's a sociologist. She
got her masters in social anthropology and is probably working with
Eric Kroll a lot. #2: She's an actress in these ultra grade Z movies.
Films made around Memphis. She also works at a liquor store. #3: She
owns a skateboard store upstate. #4: She works in a restaurant in
Soho, that her boyfriend owns. #5: She's an artist who lives in Brooklyn.
#6: She's a nurse now who lives out in Long Island, working with handicapped
kids. She was a booking agent for a modeling agency when we did these
photos. #7: She's a publicist. #8: There's that girl that you saw
in Boulder. I don't know what she does. #9: She's a stripper. #10:
She's a dominatrix now. She was a graphic designer. #11: Who knows
where she is. She lives in Chicago. I don't know what she's doing.
#12: She works at an on-line service as one of the programmers. #13:
She's getting married to some rock and roll guy. #14: She's got about
two weeks clean.....
For some reason I thought that most of these girls were strippers.
It's interesting that there quite a cast of characters here from all
sorts of backgrounds....
Not many of them are strippers. Hardly any of them are.