In Conversation with Richard Kern

Richard Kern is difficult to pin down. He has shot for some of the most well-known publications in contemporary culture, including GQ, Hustler, and Playboy, as well as independent magazines such as Purple and V Magazine, but it is his work for the subversive cult publication Vice with which his style is most affiliated. Kern has used Vice as a platform to showcase his unfaltering approach to shooting young women. Intimate, candid and almost always nude, his work squares up to the viewer. He provides pace and respite by oscillating between direct confrontation and a more voyeuristic gaze. Adolescence and eroticism play integral roles in his depiction of the ‘regular girl’, and his adopted style, usually reserved for soft-pornography, raises fundamental questions about the relationships between fashion, photography and art. The agent provocateur (and Dossier contributor) took some time to speak with us, and hand picked some of his favorite shots from his vast back catalogue for us to enjoy.

Natasha Arnold: Can you color in your childhood for us a little? Was art prevalent in your upbringing?

Richard Kern: I grew up in a small town in North Carolina so there was zero art in my enviroment or at least anything that was called art other than “art class” in high school. It was a popular class because the teacher never reported us if we skipped school, so I was rarely there. I did know an old man who was an abstract expressionist painter (in addition to being a sign painter). In the 50′s and 60′s I hung out with some adults that I would now think of as arty boho types.

My father was a newspaper photographer, so I learned how to process film, etc, from him when I was in the 5th grade or so. I didn’t think of art as a career choice until I started studying it in college.

Natasha: Who are your key influences?

Richard: Some of the people I was into in college were big influences – Chris Burden, Bruce Nauman, Carl Andre, Joseth Kosuth, and my ceramic sculpture instructor at UNC-CH, a guy named Mike Cendric. The art critic Donald Kuspit taught one semester there and I took him for the History of Modern Art – that was a giant thing to me because he really looked down at the artist types. He preached how we were nothing without the critics. That was the school of thought back then and probably still is now. I was also inspired by an art fanzine in my school library called Artrite by Walter Robinson (and I don’t know who else did it).

Bear in mind this is all in the mid 70′s. My biggest influence was a philosophy of art instructor visiting from Harvard’s philosophy department. The entire semester we discussed the sentence “This is good art” and multiple variations of sentences like that, and went back and forth, breaking them down to basic logic and trying to determine if there is a formula for something to be called “art”. Of course the answer is no.

Natasha: You’ve spoken before about the importance of the ‘regular girl’ and experimentation with models. How fundamental is the casting process to your portraits?

Richard: I only shoot girls I want to shoot. I’m shooting a girl this week because she has blond armpit hair and a blond bush. I think she will work for a bunch of series I’m working on.

Natasha: Freud argued that scopophilia is a natural human impulse (scopophilia:  an infantile habit, the pleasure involved in looking at other people’s bodies as particularly, erotic, objects). What do you make of the detractors who call the voyeuristic/erotic aspects of your work perverse?

Richard: I’d say they are right. For something to appear successful to me it has to have a bit of a sleazy aspect, something that bugs the viewer and makes them feel like there is something about the image that they feel not comfortable with.

Natasha: How do drugs fit into your art practice? Do they inform your process or subject?

Richard: I did drugs at one time but don’t now. I like to shoot people doing them cause they are a sort of hidden thing. I’ve got a great drug project going now called Medicated that’s about medicated teenaged girls.

Natasha: Can you talk to us more about the Medicated series?

Richard: For the medicated series, I’ve shot maybe 20 girls that are on pills or have been on pills since they were young.  There’s an accompanying film in which I interviewed and shot some drug based footage of about 10 girls of all types, that were taking pills since puberty, or still are taking different pills perscribed by doctors to treat various mental disorders.

Natasha: What impact do you think the internet has had on your work?

Richard: Well, I used to sell a ton of DVDs, and that’s dried up now. My show on has been really good for me because that mag, although not noticed so much in New York, is really influential worldwide. In a lot of places that Vice is published – I think there’s about 30 offices around the world – it’s the only place for kids to find out about weird and cool things happening outside of their neighborhoods.

Natasha: Are you at a point where you are satisfied with your body of work or is there still subject matter you would like to explore?

Richard: I doubt anyone who is doing any kind of exploration using some art form is ever satisfied with their body of work. What else is there to live for?

Natasha: You’ve shot various decades of girls, do you have a favorite?

Richard: My favorite decade is tomorrow.

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