The New Pornographer: A Richard Kern Interview

The cult photographer and no-wave filmmaker Richard Kern talks to John-Paul Pryor about Lydia Lunch, Sonic Youth, self-harming super-freaks and the search for a new kind of beauty.

There are few people who have captured the naked female form in the eye of their lens as much as long-time Sonic Youth and Lydia Lunch collaborator Richard Kern, sharp-shooting star of the upcoming Vice-produced documentary Shot By Kern, wherein he travels Europe in search of young girls to shoot in their birthday suits. The Quietus caught up with him at his home in New York to find out how a provocative no-wave film director – who brought us lo-fi celluloid fare such as Fingered, Stray Dogs and You Killed Me First – turned into a polite, self-effacing 55-year-old on a quest to shoot a new kind of beauty (albeit via Hustler shoots, Kenneth Anger conventions and drug-crazed fans with a taste for blood).

What made you want to pursue the life of a photographer?

Richard Kern: I would have to say it was Blow-Up. When I saw that movie as a kid, I thought that it just looked like a really perfect life. I mean, the character was rich, he was driving around doing cool stuff, and he had girls come over that he would shoot.

Did Blow-Up also inspire you to start making films?

RK: I would love to make a film like that because there is so much thinking going on in that movie – you can actually see it on the actor’s faces – but Blow-Up didn’t have much to do with my films. My early films were more closely related to Russ Meyer or John Waters, or even the slasher films of the era. I also used to go to as many of Kenneth Anger’s film screenings as I could to try and hear him speak, but he never spoke, he would just wander silently around the crowd.

All your films featured some pretty intense people, such as Lydia Lunch and the incredible Lung Leg. What was it like to work with those extreme personalities?

RK: Lydia was a completely ‘take charge’ kind of person who would say, ‘I want to do this and this… and this!’ Fingered was easily the most successful of all those films and that was pretty much just Lydia saying, ‘Let’s go to California and shoot a film!’ That’s how it actually got done. She also introduced me to Sonic Youth, bringing me in on the ‘Death Valley 69’ video to do special effects. Lung Leg was just… well, I had never met anyone like that before. I think I was 30 by then and I had met a lot of people, but I had never met someone as weird as her.

I find Stray Dogs the most bizarre of all your films…

RK: [Laughs] That was one of the Manhattan Love Suicide series, which were all about getting so hung up on your relationships that you just couldn’t do anything else. When you’re young you are so overwhelmed with all these emotions that are centred on your relationship – your life at that age is not about what you are doing but about who you are going out with. All the movies in that series were about people who just get so hung up on it all that they kill themselves. When you are older, it seems like the stupidest thing to be suffering so much: to feel that you have to die for love.

You have shot spreads for Hustler in the past. Would you say there is a line to be drawn between pornography and erotic art?

RK: There’s definitely a line. If you go on the internet and look up porn it’s not going to look like my movies or photos, it’s going to look like something else, and the people involved are going to be a lot uglier. There was a period of about five years when I was shooting for skin mags. I would go out to Los Angeles and see the LA Hollywood star system and the LA porn star system – two parallel universes that operate side-by-side – and that was just depressing. Lots of the people you come in contact with don’t realise that they are making these decisions that are going to determine the rest of their lives. Even the little brush I had shooting stills for magazines still comes back to haunt me. I wouldn’t say I regret it, though, because I produced an incredible library of stuff. Even though I am not a big fan of it at this point, I will probably look back at it in twenty years and see some good stuff in there.

Can you tell us a little about your early zine Heroin Addict?

RK: Well, I put together the zine when I was still young and living in North Carolina. I was listening to Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground and thinking, ‘Wow! That sounds so cool!’ So I decided to do this magazine and I think the tagline for it was The Magazine For People Who Are Too Chicken To Do Heroin. Then I moved to New York and saw the real thing, got involved in the real thing, and then got out of the heroin scene.

Why do you think heroin gets such a hold on people?

RK: I would say it’s definitely physiological, and once you get the hook it’s tough – you can get heroin out of your system but then this mental thing keeps coming back; this kind of hopeless despair that doesn’t go away for a couple of years. That’s the part you have to live through.

Have you ever shot anything that you decided was too extreme to show?

RK: There was once a girl from Tokyo who wrote me and said she wanted to model, and after I replied that I thought she looked okay, she got straight on a plane. When she showed up at my house the next day, I said, ‘Wow, you’ve got a lot of cut marks on your arm,’ and she just replied, ‘Oh, I just do that sometimes.’ I said, ‘Well, let me shoot you doing that.’ She just started slicing herself up. It was fucking gross, man. I never showed that stuff. She also had this gigantic bag of all kinds of pills with her, and she would be taking like, ten pills at time.

Would you say you were attracted to that kind of energy?

RK: I am attracted to the weirdness but not to the energy. I fucking hate it. These days, if someone has that kind of tweaked-out druggie energy, I can’t even be around them. I’m shooting way more pastoral now. I’m looking more for beauty and nostalgia than those kinds of extremes. I’m reaching for something new that I haven’t seen before.

Now you have the Shot By Kern about to be screened over here. Why do you think so many girls were keen to be shot by you for that show?

RK: I don’t know. I think with the documentary, it’s maybe just that they want to be on the show. I think women of a certain age are just really interested in trying something new – they want to try something different, just to see if they can do it; it’s like that thing of, ‘I wanna see if I can bungee jump off a bridge, so I’m gonna try it.’ Personally, I would never try it. I would never jump out of an airplane and I would probably never go and model for someone either, but these girls seem to really want to do it.

There is an exhibition of stills from Shot By Kern at Kenny Schachter Rove, 33-34 Hoxton Square, May 21 – June 26

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