Richard Kern is a modern day patron saint of boobs, pretty girls, good bands, nice pictures, and babes having a great time. Since the 80s he’s collaborated with too many baller people to mention, helped put artists like Sonic Youth on the map, and has shot for pretty much every magazine you have on your coffee table and under your bed.
Sometimes interviewing big names can be pretty intimidating, and more often than not they're sort of buttholes. Kern was one of the nicest and easiest people we’ve even had the pleasure to talk to. No wonder girls are always taking their clothes off for him.
VICE:Are you excited about our upcoming shows?
Richard Kern:Umm. Do I be honest or…?
No be honest, come on, it’s good for my article.
Yes I’m very excited about it. I actually. Since it—Yes I am excited about it.
You seem a bit hesitant there?
No I mean I have no feeling one way or the other about it to be honest. I wish I were there.
You’ve been to Australia right?
Yeah many times. My kid’s mum is Australian and my current wife is from New Zealand.
I wanted to ask you about New Zealand. They’ve had issues with some of your shoots.
They had some issues?
Yeah with some of your shoots in VICE, they were concerned because the girls looked very young.
Right, right, right. They are very young, but they’re all legal (laughs).
Who would have thought the New Zealanders would have a problem. They’re so chill.
There was a funny thing about that, my wife was in one of the photographs and she’s 34 now. I can’t remember the connection; was it a newspaper that was complaining about her pictures?
I don’t know all the details, but they didn’t like it.
Yeah. She had actually written for that newspaper when she was younger. And it was some crazy connection. It was just really funny.
Were they aware of that?
No not at all.
That’s a quite a coincidence.
And she’s from New Zealand. She used to do a lot of stuff with Pavement that magazine they had there!
Really? Pavement has shot girls under 18 naked before.
They shot her when she was 17!
New Zealand can’t talk they are always taking it off in high school.
I just watched this show Top of the Lake and it was fun because I kept getting to say to my wife, “Yes this is what New Zealand is really like, this is typical New Zealanders”. It was funny.
Just murders on the South Island.
Paedophiles, meth labs, but that wasn’t my impression of New Zealand at all—I liked it a lot.
Everyone talks about the ice labs but it’s not like that, it’s Maori kids playing guitar at the supermarket.
Yeah I think that New Zealand is—well, what do I know? But my impression is that New Zealand is kinda like Florida. All around the coast is one thing and as soon as you go inland it turns into another place.
So is Australia though, it turns a bit Mad Max as soon as you can’t see the ocean.
Yeah anywhere is, I mean all of America is like that! But as far as those issues, I was really surprised. Well first I was surprised that VICE ran those photos (laughs). That was right after the old editor quit. It was a new editor, the last one wouldn’t run the photos. All of a sudden the magazine got all, “okay we’re going to do something crazy”. I swear to God, I couldn’t believe they ran them.
Since then, I have to say, and you probably notice this working for them, VICE has really pulled way back. Like when I shoot for them now, you can’t show nipples or anything. You can show a guy’s butt but you can’t show nipples.
It’s pretty hard to know where to draw the line when you’re reaching a lot of people I guess. You don’t want to alienate anyone but you also don’t want to compromise.
Yeah. Oh yeah, that’s right this is for VICE. But anyway, VICE has pulled back. Like my show that was one of the original shows from VICEland.com has really moved. You really have to look for it. Like it was one of the original drivers that made the site very strong. At least this is my feeling.
I was wondering if you’d do a Shot By Kern New Zealand or Australia, but I thought you weren’t making them anymore.
Yeah, yeah they’re on to other things, which I totally understand, it’s not a big deal but we haven’t done one for probably a year and a half, almost two years.
Are you ever surprised by the publications or even countries that really embrace you?
Well it’s funny because right before your call I was talking to this museum in Spain that’s going to bring me there. So I really don’t have much of a problem at all these days. If anything Shot by Kern is so tame it’s made it much, much, much easier to get models. A lot of girls write because of that show, and because they’ve seen the show they know exactly what to expect.
I did a shoot here two days ago and at the end of the shoot I had stepped out and I came back to the table and both girls said, “Richard, you know this is so unlike most of the shoots we do, there’s usually people grabbing you, and thinking they’ve got to touch you and saying ‘You’re so hot baby’ and all this kind of stuff! This is like shooting with my dad or something”.
Girls are drawn to you though, I can’t count the amount of time I’ve heard friends say, “Oh, I’d never take my clothes off for a shoot, except if it was for Richard Kern”.
It’s that show. There was a girl here that I was speaking to the other day, I don’t know if they have Craigslist there but there are people that advertise for models and when a girl goes to one of those shoots she has no idea what she’s going to see when she opens that door. This girl was telling me she just did a Craigslist shoot and it was so horrible. She said the guy was all sweaty and saying, “come on be sexy, be sexy”. I’ve never said that.
You must attract a certain level of crazy though because of the show and your profile.
I guess. I was talking to those same girls that said it’s like shooting with their dad, and I said I don’t shoot sleazy models, or sluts and they both go, “But we’re sluts”.
But it’s always the nice girls that think they’re slutty.
Yeah, well I said, “When I look at you I don’t see that, I just see two people. Your private life, I don’t want to know about.”
Do models come on to you?
Not in a long time, maybe when I was younger. I mean I’m almost 60. If someone did… No I’m not even going to say that.
Oh come on.
Next question, no I would wonder what is wrong with them. That’s the first thing that I would be wondering.
Do girls ever get to the end of a shoot then turn around and say to you, “I don’t want those photos out there”?
Not at the end of a shoot, but two years later. That just happened with one girl that was on Shot by Kern, I shot her five times, she’s in the books and she just freaked out and wanted everything removed. So I removed everything I could. She said, “When I did those photos I was in a bad place in my life.”
Do you take that personally?
No. I mean a long time ago I did. But everybody does stuff that we wish we could take back at some point. As a result, depending where I am getting the model from, I generally tell them, “Okay you’ve got to think about this before you do it.” I spoke to a girl who was a teacher the other day; I said, “Seriously, you really have to think about this.”
That’s crazy that you even got a teacher to consider it. When I was an intern and had to go up to people up the street and say, “Would you have sex with a dog?” Anyone who had anything to do with kids wouldn’t even look at me.
Did anyone ever say yes?
People will say anything if you’re from a magazine.
Actually, I was doing a shoot in Toronto recently and this girl had been asking to be shot by me for a year. Every few weeks I would get an email. So I got to Canada and I wasn’t going to shoot her, then someone dropped out and I said okay. She got there, we’re shooting for 15 minutes and I said, “Okay lets take your top off”. She kept being hesitant and she said, “You know, I don’t feel comfortable doing this”.
It was just really funny, this year long build up and then she had second thoughts. She said, “I just keep thinking about what my brother would say to me if he saw these photos”. To be honest I was looking at her thinking, “Oh gosh, here goes my money out the window”. Which happens sometimes you know, sometimes I’m just going through the motions.
Do a lot of girls come in with a preconceived notion of what you want?
Yeah, I mean everything is a generalisation. Girls have said to me, “When do we shoot the sexy stuff?” I say, “We’re shooting it now” and they say, “Well this isn’t sexy”. I’m like, “Well on the camera it is sexy.” Then the girl says, “But I don’t feel sexy” and I’m like, “Well that doesn’t matter really.”
When I was looking through all your work it struck me how similar the work you’ve shot for editorial, fashion and porn is. You’d expect a photographer’s style to differ but a lot of yours are indistinguishable. Does it feel different when you’re shooting girls for Playboy rather than say VICE?
You felt like that?I look at the Playboy stuff like Sasha Grey and, think this is not me. They’re so like, well first they’re so luxurious, and then the retouching is way out there. But yeah I definitely felt different. You know why? Because I was thinking “I can’t believe I’m getting paid this much”.
Lets take a break from boobs. Your Sydney show was just in Bulgaria right?
Yeah that is where this show is coming from. The Bulgarian VICE did this show. They wanted to do a show that was not naked people because it was a public institution and they wanted to avoid it. But actually I really liked the show.
You can just see from this conversation that a lot of people get stuck talking about nudity in relation to your work, do you ever feel that there’s stuff you struggle to communicate because people get so caught up in the sex?
Yeah, I’m having this issue right now with a show in New York in September. The stuff I want to show, that I’m mainly interested in, is the stuff called Medicated that was in VICE at one point.
But then other people are saying, “Well you need to show some pretty photographs of girls so you can sell stuff”. I’m like yeah, but I don’t even care about that stuff, I don’t even know what’s pretty anymore. So there is that issue. I’ve made a lot of films lately and music videos and stuff, you know I don’t even care if people are naked to be honest.
I was watching your Is Tropical clip before and thinking, I wonder if all those boobs are boring to him by now?
Right, well they wanted something a little bit crazy. In fact for that particular shoot the girls weren’t supposed to be naked but you know it goes. That was like a two-day party and it was so crazy. It wasn’t boring at all for me because I hadn’t been to a party like that for years. Everyone was pretty out there, this certain group of girls who you couldn’t get their clothes on, they just wanted to be naked. So they all went kind of nuts. So no I’m not bored by naked bodies.
Is there anything that you haven’t attempted yet that you would like to? I mean you’ve done a lot of film, a lot of art and obviously a lot of photography.
Yes I’d like to make a 70-minute feature.
Really. Do you have any ideas for it?
Yes, I also have an idea of how difficult it will be. It wouldn’t be that difficult it’s just if I had to do it for someone else then I think there’re some stacks attached to it. But one thing about doing something like that— when I did my old films I made a tonne of money of them because you can actually make a movie and put it out on VHS and DVD and people brought them but that’s kind of gone away at the moment.
You have a pretty loyal following though, hey I was actually re-watching stuff in the early Shot by Kern and there was this French girl.
Whatever happened to her? She really stood out for me.
She lives in LA. She was a person who we took off Shot by Kern at her request and it wasn’t because she gave a shit but I can’t really say to be honest. One thing was she got tired of people coming up to her and saying, “You were in Shot by Kern”, because people do it and they think that this is something they are doing right now and that is the end of it but it lives forever. They say in Videodrome, “Long live the new flesh.” It just goes on and on, you live forever in video.
I suppose people see these few minutes of you and they think that’s your whole life and they form an opinion.
Yeah. It’s very interesting to me. My kid is not on Facebook thank god, but he does do a lot of Instagraming. I drill it into his head to never put anything questionable on there, never say anything questionable in a text or an email or do anything illegal and photograph it. Because all these people who are putting their whole lives up, I mean there’s been a lot of stories about it and it’s also generated a whole new industry of reputation scrubbers, but people have been sticking their life online for so long. Their life of them doing stupid stuff and that shit is not going anywhere. I mean if you put it on Facebook they pretty much own it. I wonder about Instagram.
You’ve been shooting for so long, do you see differences between models who grew up with this technology and those who didn’t?
Yeah I think it’s a bit funny with the girls that act like they couldn’t care less, they end up being the ones that care the most. But I think the attitudes have definitely slackened up quite a bit, I mean the editor of my book Diane Hanson used to edit men’s magazines. She was in that business in the early 70s and she was talking about in old porn there would be maybe five girls or 10 girls that were the ones who were employed in movies. Now there’re like 10 zillion people as it’s just generally a looser scene and attitude.
Back then if you wanted to do porn, I mean you could obviously fall into it, but there were a lot of steps you took and a lot of points where you could change your mind about the direction you were heading. Now you can decide and be on the Internet in five seconds.
Yeah exactly, I was shooting this person, this rapper the other day and it was the day that Instagram came online with the video and one of them pointed the camera at the other guy and said, “This guy’s a convicted paedophile!” And then he put it up and I said “Are you fucking crazy?’ I mean that’s what I was thinking. I didn’t say it.
Who was the rapper?
I shouldn’t say.
You’re so good about that.
This is VICE and it’s going to be online.
Yeah exactly, you’re practising what you preach. Just thinking again about your Australian show where you’ve shot celebrities, do you ever get star struck by anyone?
Yes. Danny McBride. I don’t know if you know who that is.
Yeah, I love Danny McBride.
Yeah, I could barely talk. Well he grew up like 30 miles from where I grew up. We had a lot in common except I just couldn’t get it out of my head that he was not the guy from Eastbound and Down. We are talking to him normal, he’s just standing around talking like a regular guy but I could not get that out of my head.
Do you ever get shy?
I’m very shy I would say. I’m not very outgoing, ask my wife. We go to a party and I find a spot and sit in that spot and we rarely go to parties.
I used to wonder how my mother could be happy sitting at her house and looking out at the woods and drinking coffee and now I don’t wonder that at all, it’s really obvious to me.
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RSVP here for the opening night of Richard Kern - The 'Some Famous People' Exhibition on August 29.