In conversation with Richard Kern

Kern first came to prominence in the eighties as the part of an underground scene that was happening at the time in the East Village, New York City. Back then, as a part of “Cinema of Transgression,” he was mostly known for his primitive yet cool, sexual, experimental films in which Sonic Youth, Kembra Pfahler, Lydia Lunch, Henry Rollins, etc. all had cameos in. Today he is mostly known for photographing (half) naked, glistening girls/women.

Richard Kern’s work has caused quite a stir over the years. From getting his movie kicked out of Berlinale due to the showing of an (acted) rape scene to having his work called pornographic, violent and to explicit. Kern has no real issues with whether his work is deemed as pornographic, he is just doing his thing. And his work does possess a certain amount of tenderness to it, even though that is not always evident. Throughout his career, he has published 11 books and has been exhibited at MOMA, The Whitney Museum and in more than 50 solo shows around the world.

We caught up with Kern while he was in Geneva just days after his opening of USED solo show and LIKE group show, which he curated.


Richard, with your photography, it is sometimes hard to tell what is staged and what is real, so what is the thing? How much of it it’s constructed?

Photos are staged to a degree, but I try to catch the part that is not staged. The idea is to make something that looks natural, and that is something that I have been trying to do since forever, to do something that looks completely real.

What are the limits of the game, though? I mean, how do you know you took it too far regarding what you are showing on a photograph? When is a photograph pornographic?

When people masturbate to it.


That’s the truth, that is what makes the difference. But it also depends on who you ask. Show the same image to five different people and you will get five different answers. It also depends on who shot the photo, who is in the photo, if you know the person who shot the photo, etc. all kinds of stuff.

When you started out with this kind of imagery, did you ever have troubles with galleries? Was it ever too much for some of them? If you just remember the troubles Koons faced when he took photos of Cicciolina for the first time….

No, not really. I didn’t have many problems doing that kind of imagery – the only issue is, I don’t know why it took me such a long time to figure it out that people aren’t going to buy a photo of some naked girl with her legs spread out to put on their wall (laughs).

In one of your old interviews, you talk about how galleries, when putting together a show, straight up expect pictures of girls.

That is pretty much the truth, but also that is mostly what I have photos of, so it’s ok. But I was thinking recently that maybe I should do something away from photography. I started out doing sculpture, but I abandoned that years ago.

So why don’t you go back to where you started?

You mean back to making sculpture?

Yes. Simply confirm the shows with galleries as a photographer and then give them objects.

I think some of the galleries would be OK with that, as long as there would be some photo element. There are a few people that did that and that I like. For example, Rachel Harrison started out with photography but then emerged into sculpture. She was able to transfer her elements from one medium to another, it probably took her twenty years to do so, but she did it, and she did it well.

What would you do if you would do sculpture?

That is the whole thing, I don’t know. I would have to drop out for a while to figure it out because I feel it would have to stay in the realm of stuff I’ve made throughout my whole career.

Where do you feel is your main market?

It’s not bad in this part of Europe (Geneva), and it’s good in France, Italy, Sweden and, of course, the USA. Those are my main countries, I think, but I don’t have a fantastic market in general. I don’t make a lot of money from art and photos are a particularly tough market, especially small ones. I just had a show of Polaroids in NYC, and I sold a ton of them, but I only made ten thousand dollars because I made them really cheap.

When you do commission work, do you get certain guidelines or because of what you do and you have done that since forever, people just let you do your thing?

 Everyone has guidelines, but I don’t do a lot of that stuff, at least this year or the past one, I haven’t. But yes, I usually do get asked to shoot something that has to do with girls, a lot of the times in their underwear.

Do girls in underwear still excite you at this point?

Depends on the model, but lately, I am not sure exactly what I am shooting, to be honest. But that happens from time to time. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I know what I am actually shooting, but I don’t know why I am shooting that. One of the places I traditionally made money with were book sales and the heterosexual book market for photos of naked women is kind of dead now, because there is the internet, who needs the books?

Exactly and there is so much of it. I feel like (half) naked girls are everywhere.

They are. When I first started that wasn’t the case. Maybe that is another reason why I would like to try sculpture again. But I still have fun at photoshoots, and I also do a lot of video work. I will do one, let say, every six months.

That is a lot!

Yes, and I do have fun doing them, the only thing is they take a lot of time and work, and there is no real money in it, well it used to be, but not anymore. OK, I feel like I am again talking too much about money, people often say I tend to do so.

Everyone loves and wants money, so go for it. Anyhow, when you did music videos for other people, did you like all the songs you did videos for?

There have been a couple of times I didn’t like it, and those videos I can’t stand.

Were you ever interested in making a full feature film?

I wrote one a couple of years ago with my writing partner. We were trying to get financing for the last two years, and we got something, but we didn’t get enough, so it’s just sitting there right now, we will see what is going to happen next. I am 62, I feel like I should be relaxing and enjoying life, but then I think of Michael Haneke, and he didn’t start doing films till he was in his late fifties or something like that. He was a philosophy teacher prior he did his first movie.

In one the videos one can find on Youtube, you show off stuff you have in your apartment, and Warhol’s book makes a cameo. Was he ever an influence?

That book (The Philosophy of Andy Warhol) was an influence. When I was still in school, I read that book, and I just worshiped his work. I grew up in a small town in a middle of nowhere, and when I was a kid, Andy Warhol was on the cover of Life magazine, and reading about him and the scene he created, seemed very exciting at the time. But when I first read the book, I was a bit shocked (because the book is really bland and about everyday life), but later on, I realized it is a lot more accurate than I thought it was. Even though he talks about nothing, he did predict a lot of stuff.

True. Richard, what is your proudest moment?

My proudest moment hasn’t come up yet, but when I did my first book, that was a thrill! Or when I made the movie Fingered (1986), and people reacted so violently against it, that was really exciting.


Yes, and that happened in Germany, actually. Fingered was invited to Berlinale to open for new John Waters film at the time.  After the first screening at the festival, I came out on stage and I got booed really bad. In return I gave everyone the finger and said, “This movie is for people like you, fuck you!” and I just walked off. But I was a lot more punk-rock then that I am now. So, movie got kicked out of the Berlinale after the first screening, but it still got to tour Germany, and everywhere where was a screening, people had mad protests and were very against it. The thing is, the movie had a rape scene in it. It was, of course, not an actual rape, all was staged. There was no rape, but people just went mad for it, and at points, I was actually terrified people are going to do something much crazier than they actually ended up doing. In Berlin, in one cinema place, feminist men came in the cinema to put paint over the projectors so the screening would not happen, but what they ended up doing, they painted the wrong projector, so they destroyed someone else’s film.

Interview: Katja Horvat

Photos: Courtesy of the artist