Richard Kern is an erotic filmmaker and photographer in New York. He was initially recognized for his leading work with the Cinema of Transgression, which involved extreme sex and agitation, with titles like Fingered and Manhattan Love Suicides. He’s also worked with zines and directed videos, like King Missile’s “Detachable Penis.” The evolution of his photography has surfaced over nine monographs, including the rousing New York Girls to the recent Looker. It was great to meet him when he was in Toronto recently, making a rare appearance with a retrospective exhibition of his work from the early years of his emboldened career.

Q: How did you start working with photography and coming to focus on suggestive female figures?
I had always done photography since I was a kid, then in college I studied art and one of the things that’s made very clear to you is that you have to document everything you do. I was also doing a lot of photo-based projects, things that were very similar to what I shoot now, except I would shoot both men and women, not in sexual situations, but where I’d ask them to do the basic stuff you do with photography, like "Can you do this action," and I’d photograph it.

Related pictures: Simply Amateur

When I got to New York, living in a small apartment, it was hard to do the kind of art stuff I had done from school 'cause I was doing sculptural-based stuff in addition to conceptual work. So I switched to photography and started making fan zines and the fan zines were initially vehicles for me to put my photos in. Then I got into film work doing the stuff that became known as the Cinema of Transgression and that ended with me being a kind of messed-up drug addict, kind of down and out. I got to the point where photography was the only thing I could afford.

looker_cover.jpgI started shooting friends and I realized: Wow, I’m broke, but I could shoot girls naked. And that’s how I started doing it, basically. When I asked one girl, I’d ask another girl and another – couldn’t believe they would all just keep saying, "Yes, I’ll do it" – in the late '80s when I started doing the naked photos. Most guys at some point would’ve taken some kind of naked photos of their girlfriends, which goes back to one of the reasons why I think Polaroid cameras were so popular, because you could take a naked photo of someone and you didn’t have to send it to a lab to get processed.

Q: You’ve said that it was a lot easier to be controversial in the early ‘80s in NY and you also worked with porn. What do you think of the girls of porn and your own work differing?
Ninety per cent of the girls that I shot – let me clarify, I don’t feel I shot porn, I shot naked photos of girls. If I go for porn on the Internet, it’ll be people having all kinds of sex, while I never really shot people having sex, except in private. I shot stuff that was used in sex magazines so I guess that makes it porn, but I really find it hard to relate to my photos in, say, Barely Legal as being porn photos. What made them porn was the writing that went along with them, girls talking about doing all kinds of stuff. Anyway, if that’s porn. Of what I was going to say about the girls, I think 90 per cent of the girls were really hard looking and the ones I met whenever I shot in L.A. and I’d get girls from the agencies out there, they were leading pretty rough lives by my standards.

Q: There’s some notoriety with your early films like Fingered, in terms of pushing obscenity, while your photography seems to be more fantasy-driven. How do you think your fantasy concepts have changed over time?
My fantasy concepts have gotten to be a bit more specific, in relation to what I find interesting to look at. Like when I was younger, I never thought about girls’ feet. There was a period when I was shooting for this magazine called Leg Show and the editor was like, "You got to look for this, you got to look for that." Then all of a sudden, probably in my 40s, I started thinking more about women’s feet.

A great thing about feet and hands, one of the things that’s great for men, in the summer time you go to the subway, the street, anywhere and there’s the women's feet. Just all over the place. So it’s like you’re seeing some body part that’s uncovered for part of the year. Just like the girls getting down to less clothes, with their feet they walk around in sandals or flip-flops. And what is it about feet? There’s all kinds of things that become more specific with me as I get older. Areas of interest change.

Q: What do you think of amateur sexual imagery, in relation to your film Extra Action?
[Laughs] Well, that’s totally amateur sexual imagery, that’s for sure. The way Extra Action came about was I was doing the book Action and the publisher said, "We’d like to put some kind of DVD in this, do you have any footage? And I said, "Well, I have tons of video footage." So for an extra fee, I did Extra Action. It had to be an hour long and you’ll notice it’s exactly one hour long. And they wanted to see nudity, so there’s tons of nudity. I prefer the version that’s on my website that’s about one minute long and it moves really fast.

I was very surprised by reactions to that film, that a lot of people thought the lighting was great and the camera work and all this stuff. But it was done with a really cheap camera and no lights. I was just shooting whatever, each time I’d shoot I’d say, "Can you roll on the bed for a few minutes? Stand in the shower. Can you walk through the woods?" and I would just shoot it, trying to get about a three-minute video of each girl. I still do this now.

These days, it’s directed a bit more. Like I’m working on one thing now and it’s just girls with their eyes closed, spinning around – they spin around for a long time with their eyes closed and they try to walk. I’ve been shooting that a lot. That’ll make a nice video at some point I think. It’ll be fun to watch.

Q: Sounds nice.
Extra Action is kind of like wallpaper. It gets played in clubs a lot, even with or without a sound track, like some kind of background

Q: As you’ve had a number of photographic books, how do you think your approaches to female erotic depictions have changed across your books?
In the beginning I was using a lot of, I’d call it, noirish-type wigs. The themes were much more dramatic and surreal looking. Now I’ve gotten more into shooting something also a bit weird and I shoot a lot, and sometimes I get that something weird, sometimes not. I was just looking at some of the stuff in Toronto. And I’m also just shooting not so much for nakedness, like I shot scenes of smoking pot there. I did schoolgirl stuff there. There’s thinking of maybe doing a book with those two subjects. Pot-smoking book, which, believe it or not, people are really interested in this, girls smoking pot – I suppose for old guys sitting around stoned. And the school girls stuff will look like a yearbook hopefully, with half of the girls with their tops off. Could be the greatest yearbook of all time, as long as the girls are over 18.

Q: Are you interested in how female sexuality appears across different commercial, celebrity media?
I’m always looking for photos online of girls. I look at a lot of celebrity sites, some free photo-based porn sites. These days, everybody’s taking photos, so there’s photos of all kinds of stuff. I’ve got folders and folders. I do this every morning. I was just talking about this with my barber before you called. And this guy from the Giants got arrested, this guy [Lawrence Taylor] for hiring a prostitute that was underage, talking about how this kind of stuff has always gone on like a celebrity who gets in trouble for having sex. I’m not a celebrity but when I was at my opening several people came up and interviewed me with their cellphones. Now it seems if you do anything it’s going to be made public.

Q: You’re working often with younger models. Do you feel you’ll always be interested in this sort of focus – post-adolescent period where there can be beauty, as well as turmoil, complexities.

: Yes. That’s the period where people are looking for the kind of excitement I’m talking about, so that helps tremendously. I mean, that’s where I’m going to be working, no way around it, because that’s what I’m known for. I almost got to shoot someone who was 30 there in Toronto and she was supposed to come, but she didn’t. But that’s still pretty young. I think there’s a freshness. There’s going to be girls at where I’m really surprised at how intelligent they are, then there’s going to be girls I wouldn’t be able to have a conversation outside of the scene. I think that holds true for any age.

Q: Do you get in to trouble for the fact that you’re shooting younger girls?
Yes, I do actually. I don’t get into trouble but I get people thinking I’m a sleazebag. And I am, actually.

Q: There’s nothing wrong there. You told Bruce [LaBruce] that it was more acceptable for him as a gay male artist to shoot naked men than it is for you as a straight male artist to shoot girls.
It’s not harder to shoot them but it definitely bothers people in the art biz or in commercial worlds. If you listed things of what liberals think are most politically correct, straight white older males especially, it's going to be down low. The problem when people walk into a room full of photos of naked young women, right a way a lot of people are going to have a problem with it, that’s a big barrier right there. Like what pops in your head when you think of someone shooting naked girls, you’ll think drugs, prostitution....

Q: I think as you’ve been doing this over a long time, it’s not so easy around nakedness, there’s certain subtleties, complexity in your work. Like you put a lot of time in choosing your images for exhibition.
I think I’m going to have to die for that to be realized. You know a good example, there’s this guy R. Crumb. He’s one of my heroes, from when I was a kid, like my name is R. Kern because of R. Crumb. He was always seen as a –back then he was seen as really a misogynist or worst. And you look at some of his old cartoons and man, some of them are crazy. He’s finally been embraced by the art world and the liberal world, like he does comics regularly for The New Yorker now. And you think of that old stuff and what people were thinking about. It’s that kind of example. Maybe one day they’ll figure out my stuff.

extra_action_cover.jpgFor more information on where to see Richard Kern's art work in Toronto and how watch a screening of one of his films, visit the STUDIO Gallery website, email avery@studio.to or call 416-832-3933.

First Film Screening: Saturday May 15, 7-10 p.m.
$5 admission. Includes full exhibition and curator introduction.

Second Film Screening: Saturday, May 22, 7-10 p.m.
$5 admission. Includes full exhibition and curator introduction.

Related pictures: Simply Amateur
More info: Richard Kern's website

14 Comments | Add a Comment
so great on kern
thanks for this. amazing
thanks for this interview, fantastique
you're very hot
Thanks for the info.
I can't believe I missed Richard Kern ( with Bruce )... :O(
shakes you to the core
aburst with...
I loved his interview with Sasha Grey, She is an existentialist porn star", a new one for me and she comes across as a very intelligent and thoughtful woman for one so young. I must admit I find the scenes very interesting and I feel there is a latent dominant in me though i have never tried it. As usual I liked your questions and your non judgemental approach to his being a self confessed sleaze bag. His photography is very good.
it's awesome
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I am reading your articles on Toro. I really liked the intervew with Richard kern, Thanks.
thank u for the article, it is wonderful to view ur work...
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