Richard Kern: Stern stuff!
by David Hellqvist
Photo by Richard Kern
Photographer slash filmmaker slash pornographer; New York-based artist Richard Kern can proudly raise his hand and claim all three titles. From the 1980’s and onwards, Kern made his name mixing the true original rock ‘n’ roll ingredients of sex, music and drugs in his work.
Kern’s bi-monthly fanzine ‘The Heroin Addict’ and collaborations with Sonic Youth, Black Flag’s Henry Rollins and poet Lydia Lunch set the tone for his future work. Since then, Kern’s photos have been synonymous with nude, honest and semi-sexual material. For the last few years Kern has been most prolific as a photographer, and his work has more often than not been appearing in Vice Magazine – a match made in heaven, as anyone familiar with Vice’s relaxed attitude towards undressed models will know. ‘Shot by Kern Europe’, a documentary-style film and accompanying photo exhibition of Kern travelling around Europe shooting naked girls, is now being released in conjunction with Vice, and Ponystep spoke to Kern in the run up to the London-leg premiere of the exposition.
David Hellqvist: Why did you focus this expo/book on Europe?
Richard Kern: I shoot in Europe all the time so it was no stretch, and in this case it was organised by the UK office of Vice. I have worked with Vice all over the world – Mexico, Brazil – but the UK wanted to take it a step further and make a film about it. I was happy, I got loads of content out of it!
DH: The film revolves around London, Barcelona, Paris, Milan, Antwerp and Berlin. How and why did you choose these cities?
RK: Well, it was because Vice, as a multi national organisation, has offices in all of these countries, and they sorted out all locations and the girls. But the project was originated by the UK branch of Vice. It turned really well, and I’m happy with the result.
DH: What city did you like the best and why?
RK: Two things decided what city I liked: the girls and the food! In Italy, the food was great and the girls were good – but it was hot and dirty and I didn’t like the hotel. Paris was good across the board but I had one very good girl. I suppose each city had its moments and places. In Barcelona, for example, we found a perfectly empty pool that we shot a girl in. Antwerp had amazing light, so now I know why there are so many great painters from that region.
DH: What did you set out to explore with the film and do you think it was successful?
RK: I was just along for the ride. I wanted great photos, which I got, so in that sense it was a success. I got maybe 10-15 good photos from the trip. We were on the road for 14 days, so that’s one a day!
DH: What’s the relationship between art and photography?
RK: Artists watch pornography bur pornographers don’t look at art!
DH: Why do you think that people are so fascinated with sex and porn?
RK: Well, I know exactly why guys are; they just want to masturbate. I don’t know about girls, but for me porn serves that purpose. But my work is not about jerking off, my stuff is soft-core compared to what’s out there.
DH: Is your work seen differently in the US compared to the UK?
RK: It used to be, but now everything is more unified. But there are still some differences – in Italy and France, for example, they don’t think twice about nudity. In Europe in general, except for maybe the UK, it’s to easier to talk about nudity and sex compared to in the US.
DH: Is your work a form of rebellion towards conservative views of what art is supposed to be about?
RK: Perhaps, but art history is full of nudity: always have been and always will be!
DH: Is punk still alive and prosperous?
RK: It still exists, I hear the music occasionally, and in one way the attitude is still the same. After all, an 18-year old acts the same whatever year it is! But at the same time I’m not sure if the Sex Pistols would have been as controversial today as they were when they launched back then. All I know is that they were a big deal for me when I was 18 anyway!
DH: I have seen your work in Vice for many years – is there a special Kern/Vice relationship?
RK: I just like Vice and it has been a good collaboration ever since they first asked me to shoot for them. Vice is the kinda publication that doesn’t step back from my ideas but instead are keen on realising them.
DH: ‘Shot by Kern’ has been an ongoing project since 2007: is there more or was the book and expo the culmination?
RK: Hopefully not. I know Vice in Berlin wants me back, so I’m hoping it can generate some more trips.
DH: Are there any other photographers whose work you rate?
RK: I like Ryan McGinley and Terry Richardson. I also like some of the new and young ones out there, but I couldn’t tell you their names: I look at the images, not the signatures! In the last issue of Vice there was a shoot with hypnotised girls that was great – I wish I had come up with that idea…