Kernel of Truth
Published June 4, 2009
Richard Kern installing his show at RENTAL, New York. All photos by Emma Reeves.
A new exhibition of the work of Richard Kern is on view. Photo director Emma Reeves scopes it out.
EMMA REEVES: This is really a kind of mini-retrospective show isn’t it?
RICHARD KERN: Yeah. A little bit. It is photos from â??82 to ’99.
ER: Your last show, at Feature Inc, was a more specific body of work.
RK: Yes, my shows, at least over the last five years have been really specific, a show for each space. Like I have a couple in the fall in Europe and they will be very specific shows for those places. I am leaving this Sunday and going all over Europe to shoot. One series I will be shooting is the Pot-smoking series, the ID seriesâ??girls and their IDs, and there are eight or nine different series. May be two of those will show up in these shows. One gallery will just show voyeur stuff. There is none of that in this show.
ER: What made you look back at old work for this show?
RK: I have just had a very specific show of new work last October. And there has been a lot of interest in the old color stuff lately, different magazines have been asking me to shoot in this style again so I thought I would just show all this old stuff! I realize I have tons of it just sitting around.
ER: Is this show an aim to introduce a younger audience to your work?
RK: I think the show I did at VICE introduced my stuff to that age group, that online show has opened it all up for models for me from all over the place. In fact that trip to Europe is all VICE: All seven cities we are going to that is all cast through VICE. These are all girls who have seen the show who want to model.
ER: Your relationship with VICE has been ongoing for many years.
RK: Yes, maybe five or six.
ER: There are so few magazines now, even the so-called independent ones, that will take any risks. What relationships do you have with other magazines?
RK: There are a couple of magazines like VICE that I can propose anything to, but even VICE has a little bit of a censorship issue now because of their advertisers. Some magazines like iD, every time I have shot for them they have all kinds of issues with it. Either they reduce everything to tiny images or they say that it isn’t exactly right for them. I have this problem with a lot of magazines. They say they want me to do whatever I want and when I do it then they reject it. VICE still call me for random stuff, this week I shot Elmore Leonard and Harry Benson. I am still so interested in meeting those kind of people. The middle ground for me is what I do for GQ. It is a girl who is barely dressed. I don’t have to think about it at all.
ER: You have published so many books but you didn’t start until the late 90’s. Why was that?
RK: The first time I got offered a book was around 1988 and I started going through the photographs and thought that I really only had 10 or 15 that were any good It changed my whole approach and I go heavily into photography after that. A lot of this work is from before that period. I mostly took film stills.
ER: Do you still consider yourself as a filmmaker?
RK: I just did a rock video and I have been offered a few others things. Someone else just offered me a commission. So that stuff still comes up. The rock video I just did was so much fun. It was for a band called Lizzie Trullie. I was shooting her for a label called Herve Leger and they wanted a rock and roll girl for their campaign and they also wanted a video for their website. You know one of those behind the scenes type things but this will be an actual video which didn’t have much to do with fashion.
ER: Do did a video for Marilyn Manson didn’t you? I see that you have included his portrait in the show.
RK: Yes, that was ages ago. The portrait is from 94. I never noticed until now that he shaved his armpits!
ER: Why did you include him? He is the only man in here.
RK: Well, because a whole lot of people say how much they love this photo and I looked back at it and thought it was actually a good photo. I also have a problem with showing celebrity photos. This is kind of not a celebrity photo! It is just a weird photo.
ER: What’s wrong with celebrity photos?
RK: It is a whole other thing you have to think about. Is this photo interesting because of the person or is it just a good photo? I try to shoot people who no body knows.
ER: Are there certain countries where you have a really strong following?
RK: Italy is just fantastic. France has always been good. The UK is weird. They are more censoring that even the US! The magazines there are really pushing it, they are ahead of the curve, so you would think that they would be more open minded.
ER: Have you ever had to take a show down?
RK: No. But it does make me look at the work and question it some times. Like that bondage picture in the show. I am asking myself if it is just too weird? I don’t even have a frame of reference. I know the â??head in the toilet’ picture is weird.
ER: Was it your idea?
RK: Yes! I can’t believe I found someone who could do it. I asked Lucy and she said, “Sure, I can do that, I was a gymnast.” And she just did it!
ER: The fact that you have many on-going series that are working on is that a way of reigning yourself in?
RK: Something has to be happening in the photos. They can’t be just standing there so I create different series. That becomes the methodology. But in between all the different series there will also be other random stuff. Like a certain location can be perfect for the Voyeur series. I mean, how many times can you shoot someone naked? I just gets boring.
ER: Well, you seem to have been doing it for quite a while!
RK: Actually I just realised that I haven’t shot anyone naked since January. It goes in spurts. But in Europe I am going to shoot 15 girls.
ER: I am interested in the way you cast girls. You have seen them online. But when you meet them in person does it ever just fall apart? The magic is not there?
RK: Yes. That has happened many many times! Usually now I always try to meet them before. Nowadays because of facebook, myspace and all that stuff everyone is like a amateur photo-editor, they will send you all these photos where the girls are striking poses and you have no real clue what they look like. I have a standardized form that I send out to try to get to see what they really look like but even if I get a head on shot you still really can’t tell.Â I realize that actually all the girls in this show are pre-Internet, pre-email.
ER: Is that over-awareness of presentation and appearance in women unattractive to you?
RK: Yes, I had an email yesterday which saidÂ “You are the master, I am the poet. Men seem to be hypnotized by my eroticism. We should meet and you should photograph me.” I thought that just sounded revolting!
ER: Do you actually approach people?
RK: No. It is all via email. When I get back from this trip there is a girl who wrote me from a tiny city in Utah. She is getting out of high school at the beginning of June and she wants to model. It is going to be weird out there. It has nothing to do with urban coolness. She is a hippy girl working in Yellowstone State Park this summer and I hope I can shoot there.
ER: Perhaps that will be the beginning of the great American State Park series!
RK: That would be nice!
Rental Gallery is located at 165 East Broadway, 6th Floor, New York.