Richard Kern's photography and films have been both influential and controversial. Coming out of the film underground, Kern and Nick Zedd gained notrity for "The Cinema of Transgression." Kern collaborated with both Zedd and Lydia Lunch. But the entire time, Kern had pursued his first love, photography, and now has come out with his first book of photographs, New York Girls. Later in the year, many of Kern's films will be shown at The Whitney Musem, as part of the series called "No Wave Cinema 1978-87." Kern lives in New York City.
Alexander Laurence: What have you been doing with yourself lately? You did films for a while in the eighties, photography the whole time, but in the last two years you have been lying low, there has been some inactivity, then this book.
Richard Kern: It doesn't mean that I wasn't doing anything. I was just wrapping up all that stuff that went along with the book New York Girls. 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. 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 changed!
AL: What did you start with: films, photography, or performance art?
RK: 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.
AL: It's important for you to be hard and push the envelope with your work?
RK: 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.
RK: 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
AL: 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.
RK: 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.
AL: But your own personal interest and your point of view on your subject is always voyeuristic and removed?
RK: 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 hard.
AL: 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 well.
RK: 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.
AL: What do you think of the idea that you are exploiting these young women by photographing them?
RK: 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 heads.
AL: 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.
RK: Yeah, right!
AL: Maybe you are taking advantage of them behind closed doors? Who knows?
RK: 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.
AL: Why the title New York Girls?
RK: 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.
AL: 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?
RK: 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.
AL: Do you still associate with some of those film people like Nick Zedd and Lydia Lunch?
RK: 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. She's scary.
AL: You took most of the photographs over the past ten years. Where are the New York Girls now?
RK: (Flipping through the pages of New York Girls) #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.....
AL: 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....
RK: Not many of them are strippers. Hardly any of them are.
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