Richard Kern and Mel Ottenberg on the Fate of the Nude
Richard Kern and Mel Ottenberg are old friends. Richard has a new book out called Baron. Interview got the pair on a Zoom call to talk about stuff. They really wanted to gossip, but they kept it kosher.
MEL OTTENBERG: Kern.
RICHARD KERN: Hey!
OTTENBERG: We’re actually doing this, man. I wish we were doing it in person, but at least we’re just fucking doing it.
OTTENBERG: Okay, wait look. I’ve got my gift from you from 50 million years ago, this shot of Kim Gordon. What year was this Richard Kern photograph taken?
KERN: I think ’84 or ’85, something like that.
OTTENBERG: Wait, where did I move the other one… here she is. This is Lucy, right?
KERN: Yeah. That would be ’97 or ’96.
OTTENBERG: Do you still have the giant Lucy with her head in the toilet that I always wanted?
KERN: I think I might have one left. Hey, is that a bong you’re drinking out of? [Laughs]
OTTENBERG: No, I’ve never been a bong guy. It’s just a giant carafe of water. It’s a fun way to drink water glamorously I think. Okay, so I’m looking at the book. What’s Baron?
KERN: Baron Books is the publishing company. They did a project with Petra [Collins], and they also did Death Book with Bruce LaBruce.
OTTENBERG: Oh, yeah. Death Book and that Petra book were fantastic. Oh, fuck. This looks great.
KERN: The book is so slick, I can’t believe it. It weighs a ton.
OTTENBERG: It is so slick.
KERN: Since the pandemic, I’ve done about six books, and this was one of them. There’s one called Medicated, and it’s all my shots of medications and medicated people.
OTTENBERG: I need to see that one in person. This book is sick, Richard.
KERN: Thanks, I guess. [Laughs]
OTTENBERG: Sick is good. Sick is a compliment. Richard, what’s your relationship to all of these women? Did you do a clothed and nude shot of each person?
KERN: Yes, in the same spot. I’d shoot with clothes on, and then say, “Hold it. I’m going to shoot one topless, too.” Originally, I was showing them side by side, but then someone printed one on top of the other by mistake, and it looked so cool. I’ve been doing these photos since 2010.
OTTENBERG: So you did one by mistake, and that became the idea for the book?
KERN: Yeah. Somebody printed a little zine, just 20 copies, of the photos. He accidentally printed one on top of the other, and it looked so cool that I started doing them all that way.
KERN: There are four or five recent ones in there. They’re all different ages. The original idea was to base the shots on school portraits. I thought it would bother people, and they would say, “You mean like high school?” The first one I did was of this woman who brought her old school uniform and retainer. That shot is not in the book.
OTTENBERG: The turtlenecks are so good. All of this shit is so cool. Actually, even the bra is good. The chick with the snakeskin tank top and the red bra looks incredible.
KERN: I should have done more bras, but I haven’t shot a naked girl in ages.
OTTENBERG: Of course, with art, the topless shot is always going to be more interesting.
KERN: I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember this, but did you read comic books when you were a kid?
OTTENBERG: Not really, but I know shit. What’s up?
KERN: You read fashion mags.
OTTENBERG: I was reading fashion mags as a 10-year-old, for sure.
KERN: Comic books used to have ads for X-ray glasses that you could order. They would show a guy looking at a woman, and you could see her body through her clothes, so I ordered a pair.
KERN: They send you these glasses with a red spiral on each eye and a dot in the middle, but they didn’t do anything. I was so disappointed.
OTTENBERG: That brings me to my next question. Are there a lot of new faces in here, or are some of these girls long-time muses?
KERN: That was the first time I shot Petra. But a lot of times, whenever I shoot, I have a list of things I’m going to try to capture. I’d shoot them brushing their teeth. I’d shoot them smoking pot. I’d shoot them in bed, in the bathtub, anywhere.
OTTENBERG: It’s amazing to see all of them together. What makes a girl a Richard Kern girl?
KERN: I guess a kind of boyishness, someone who is not trying to be sexy. Someone who’s not so aware of themselves, although that’s getting harder to find because of selfie culture.
OTTENBERG: And FaceTune, right?
KERN: Yeah, boy that’s a real trip.
OTTENBERG: I’ve been in pictures with people who use a FaceTune filter, and it’s really shocked me. It’s very much not what I want to be projecting. I have nothing against it for someone else, it’s just surprising when you see a picture of yourself and you’re like, “Wait. I don’t look good in this picture, I look like a cartoon.”
KERN: A robot.
OTTENBERG: Yeah, a weird gay robot. It’s bad. So, it’s increasingly hard to find those types of girls. I think that the next generation of cool people that I meet, younger people, are way less interested in having a zillion followers. They’re still very much into their phones and creating stuff on TikTok and Instagram, but it doesn’t seem like they’re as obsessed with fame, which feels hopeful. I was doing a casting yesterday, and we were looking at so many people. Eventually you have to say, “Okay, we have to figure out what they actually look like.”
KERN: There are definitely a lot of edited people out there. I mean, I do it, you do it too. We present very specific versions of ourselves to the public on social media.
KERN: Mine is, I hope, blank.
OTTENBERG: There are so many things I want to talk to you about, but I don’t want to publish them, so I’m not even going to bring them up right now.
KERN: [Laughs]. I know what you mean.
OTTENBERG: I literally don’t even know what else to say to you that I’m willing to print. I just want to fucking gossip on all this shit with you. You love to gossip, and I mean, if anyone can get it out of me, you can in one second. And actually, now that I’m thinking about it, I’ve got a lot saved up for you. Listen, I also think 2022 will be a very, very dark time. It’s got to be dark. I think this year has been some weird reprieve.
KERN: It’s impossible to say. I’m what people call conspiracy theorist, and when I think about that stuff, it feels like we’re in some weird science fiction movie.
OTTENBERG: Have you seen Dune?
OTTENBERG: I haven’t either. Do you watch Succession?
KERN: Yes, I haven’t seen the new season though.
OTTENBERG: Did you see any movies recently that I should watch?
KERN: I’ve been watching these [Jean-Luc] Godard movies, like A Woman Is A Woman. I saw it when I was a kid, and I thought it was too abstract. I watch it now and I think, “God, this is really good.”
OTTENBERG: I haven’t seen that since I was like 23. I’m going to watch it tonight.
KERN: I watch a movie every night, so I see all kinds of shit. I watched Black Swan last night.
OTTENBERG: It fucking holds up.
KERN: [Laughs] Yeah, it really holds up.
OTTENBERG: What young photographers are you interested in?
KERN: Well, I only see stuff on Instagram. I basically only find out about them if they follow me because I’m not out looking at art, really. Ask me one more question.
OTTENBERG: Who’s your dream person to photograph?
KERN: It was Norm Macdonald, but he died. I don’t really have one anymore. I wanted to shoot Kate Moss forever, but I never got to shoot her.
OTTENBERG: I never did either. Let me think of one other question. Do you think like people’s feelings about nudity and being comfortable in their bodies have changed? We live in a much more conservative era now.
KERN: When I was starting out, everything was about being sexy. Everything. I haven’t shot a naked girl in three years or so, other than a girlfriend or something. Honestly, I don’t even miss it. There are awkward moments. Once, a girl said, “Do you want me to do the nude in the bathtub?” and I forgot that I had given her this nude bra and panties to wear. I was getting all nervous that she was going to be naked. I was like, “Uh, uh, uh nude?” She goes, “I mean, wearing the nude clothes.”
KERN: Nowadays, when I do shoot, the people I shoot are very similar to the ones I used to shoot. They’re super enthusiastic. It feels like like there’s a rebellion happening here and there against all those constraints imposed by cancel culture. It used to be that when someone left a negative comment on my something I posted, it would throw me in a deep depression. Now I realize that there’s just the one person who has this opinion, and a thousand who like the work.
OTTENBERG: I guess the reason people make all those nasty comments is because they know that they’ll be seen. I don’t really understand it. But also, fuck those guys. It’s not that approval from real people doesn’t matter, but fuck some faceless bot of evil. It’s very destructive, but it’s a part of the culture that will never go away now.
KERN: When I did my first book with TASCHEN, New York Girls, in 1995, it was the end of a period where there was no nudity. In the ’80s and ’90s, you couldn’t go in a bookstore and buy a book that had naked photos in it. That was a result of the first feminist movement, I guess. Everybody was paranoid about doing stuff like that. Afterwards, things picked up steam like crazy, and crashed back down when You Know Who was accused. It’s funny, if you look at Petra’s photos, you’ll see that she is able to do a lot of stuff that, if I were doing it, I’d get a lot of shit for. She can do it because she’s a woman.
OTTENBERG: It all happened at a time that makes sense. I read the Ronan Farrow book, Catch and Kill, about Weinstein, and you just cannot believe how horrible it is. All of these terrible things were happening to so many women, and there was this huge culture of people that enabled this abuse. You just can’t even believe that this shit is real. I think that reckoning was really important.
KERN: I wish we could have the same kind of reckoning with pharmaceutical companies.
OTTENBERG: Yeah, 100%. All right, we talked for a whole hour. You’re the best. Love you.
KERN: Next time, we’ll do it in person.