^ Richard Kern, Flyer, 1985. Courtesy of the artist and MoMA.

OTP Short-Forms: Richard Kern


An interview with the New York-based film-maker and photographer.

Goodbye 42nd Street, bath tubs and films that have an evil flavour.

Honing an aesthetic of dark satire and hyper-violence through a series of short “performances” in New York’s underground club circuit of the early 80s, Richard Kern turned to film-making in 1984 and quickly established a reputation as one of the city’s most transgressive experimental directors; John Waters famously labelled Fingered (1986) as “the best hillbilly-punk-art-porno movie in the world.”

After moving away from film-making and towards a muted and more concentrated style of still photography in the 1990s, Richard Kern has become better known internationally over the last 25 years for his stark portraits of women alone in their apartments.

Intimate in the way that his work candidly approaches nudity, private space and substance dependency (along with a range of other mental health issues) Kern’s work has remained provocative for his commitment to a mode of representation that has become increasingly fraught with shifting attitudes towards bodily representation and the photographic image. 

OTP You went to art school to study sculpture right? Could I ask you to talk a little bit about that period and how you developed an interest in film and photography?

RK Yes I studied sculpture but I had always had a camera around. My father was a local newspaper editor who taught me how to process film and the basics when I was in 5th grade.


I played around with it off and on in high school – not a lot but enough to be able to document the stuff I was doing when I got to college.

In school, they preached documenting everything you do no matter how trivial. Conceptual art was popular and I dabbled in that in school too. The camera came in handy there.

Some of my favs back then (in addition to sculptors) were polaroids by Lucas Samaras and documentation of Chris Burden projects.


^ Richard Kern, Production still from Goodbye 42nd Street, 1982. Courtesy of the artist and MoMA.

OTP Had you been interested in making films for a long time before Goodbye 42nd Street? How did that film come into being?

RK I always was a film fan – I took a job as an usher that paid in popcorn, soda and free admission in my hometown’s only movie house when I was 12.


I always fantasied about making movies and finally one day in 1982, I brought a 5$ camera at a sidewalk sale and made Goodbye 42nd street. I can’t say what finally provoked me except I did realize that people would be much more interested in moving images than in static ones.

A film screening could be an event in a night club or an art gallery or someone’s house. It is a different experience than a photo show. It was done in the dark and had a beginning and an end.

OTP How did you first get introduced to New York’s film / performance / underground club scene?

RK At that time, the scenes you refer to competed for attention and often were all mixed up with each other.


Around 1980, I was taking photographs and dating a choreographer / dancer on the performance / dance scene. I did some “performance” pieces as a direct response to some of the silly arty stuff I was seeing at the time.

My things were basically jokes on the audience – usually trying to trick them into thinking some one had been hurt or stabbed or something.

A friend of mine, David Wojnarowicz, told Lydia Lunch about me. She asked me to do some (I hesitate to call them) performances to accompany a series of readings she was doing at the Pyramid Club here.

I have to say, I enjoy dance much more than performance art now.


^ Richard Kern, Regan with Dicks, 1980. Courtesy of the artist.

OTP Whereabouts did you grow up? What was it like there?

RK I grew up in a small town in eastern North Carolina. As I said above, there was one movie house, one store that sold magazines from big cities and no malls.

There was a two block business district. Most people worked in the paper mill or cotton mills that were located in the town. My father was the editor of the local daily newspaper and my mother was a waitress.

OTP I have previously heard you talk about your interest in Larry Clark and Kenneth Anger - what is it about their style of image-making that interests you?

RK I first saw a Larry Clark book in NYC when I moved here. I’d never seen photos of people living like that. I knew those lifestyles existed I just had never see photos of it.


Kenneth Anger was famous as an underground filmmaker. As I was the “film committee” at my college I once brought him to the school to show films and talk.

I took the job as film committee because it meant I could bring movies I had heard about to my school. This was in 1976.  Anger was interesting because he had an evil flavor.

Just by titling a film Lucifer Rising, he became this devil worshiping legend. He didn’t do the talk he was supposed to do.


^ Richard Kern, Jackie (X is Y), 1990. Courtesy of the artist and MoMA.

OTP Am I right in thinking that MoMA purchased "Fingered"? How did that happen?

RK MoMA purchased 17 of my titles and Fingered was one of them. I had a two day retrospective of films as part of one of their film programs about filmmaking in nYC during the 70’s and 80’s.


They also purchased a lot of my polaroids and flyers from that era.

OTP How did you meet Richard Prince and could I ask you to talk a bit about your previous collaborations?

RK We didn’t collaborate, he asked if he could use a couple of my photos [the two panels on the right in the image below] in the last of his Spiritual America series. In exchange he gave me one of the editions and some kickback on sales.

He asked my dealer, Hudson of Feature Inc, to set this up for him.


He used some of my images in his series Canal Zone but they were altered. He didn ‘t ask anyone permission for the images he used (by a lot of photographers) and that one guy sued him. I’m pretty sure Prince won.


^ Richard Prince, Spiritual America 3, 2004, ektacolour photograph. Courtesy of the artist.

OTP Do you see the photographs you take in your head before you realise them?

RK I usually have a list of things I would like to set up but most of the time have no idea what the place will look like so it is always different.


I can say that what I have in my head for a movie is never what I see in the finished product but it’s often close enough.

OTP Where did your interest in bath tubs come from? What sort of role do they play in your work?

RK I like women in water and now that I think about it the very first woman I shot naked was in a tub.

Bathtubs are nice peaceful places and although a lot of times lately the girls are wearing clothes in the tubs, it is a place where a woman can legitimately be naked.

OTP Have you worked much with self-portraiture in the past?

RK I did some of that stuff when I was younger, stoned and bored in my apartment.


^ Richard Kern, Man Stripping Car on Houston Street, 1979. Courtesy of the artist.

OTP Have you ever exhibited your photographs of car crashes or drug crews being arrested? How do you think these series relate to the work you are most well-known for?

RK I’ve shown a few of those photos in one show organized by Leo Fitzpatrick here in NYC. There’s a thread of drugs and violence that used to run through all my old stuff.


The drug theme is still very much there but the violence thing doesn’t play too well with photos of women. I still shoot messed up cars when I see them.


I supposed that interest came from my father taking me with him as a child to take photos of fatal car crashes that they ran in the newspaper.


OTP How did you and Sasha Grey start collaborating?

RK We didn’t really collaborate, Vice wanted me to shoot her for the show I did with them called SHOT BY KERN.


I didn’t know who she was because I don’t watch that much porn made in LA. Then playboy saw the photos and hired me to shoot her for them. She is very nice.


You have to understand though that 90% of the time when I’m shooting someone for a job, I don’t really find out much about them. The dialogue is not the same with 4 – 10 people standing around as it is with just me and a model.


OTP I have heard you talk about the irreversible effect of pornography on people’s careers - could I ask you to talk a little bit more about this in your own experience?

RK I will just say that when someone is looking to hire someone for a job, be it as a school teacher or photo shooter for advertising or waitress or nurse, etc, if they have the choice, they will choose someone that has no past that will reflect on that person’s business.


^ Richard Kern, Drug Bust on E13th, 1981. Courtesy of the artist.

Born in 1954 in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina (US), Richard Kern completed his BFA at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1977 before moving to New York in 1978 where he continues to live and work.

Richard Kern's recent exhibition history includes solo shows at the Museum of Modern Art (New York), Galerie Sebastian Betrand (Geneva), Fortnight Institute (New York), Marlborough Chelsea (New York), Museum of Modern Art (Warsaw) and Garage Center for Contemporary Culture (Moscow).

See Full Exhibition History

Richard Kern's filmography includes Medicated (2013), Extra Shot By Kern (2009-2013), The Sewing Cirle (1992), X is Y (1990), Fingered (1986), You Killed Me First (1985), Submit To Me (1985), Manhattan Love Suicides (1985), The Right Side of My Brain (1984) and Goodbye 42nd Street (1983) along with music videos for Marilyn Manson, The Breeders and Sonic Youth.

See Full Filmography

Richard Kern's work has been the subject of 18 monographs including Polarized (Victoria Press, New York: 2017), New York Girls (20th Anniversary Edition) (Taschen, Cologne: 2016), Bed Bath and Beyond (Innen Books, Geneva: 2015), Contact High (Picturebox, New York: 2013), Shot By Kern (Taschen, Cologne: 2013), Kern Noir (Charta, Milan: 2002) and XXGIRLS (Fiction Inc. Books, Tokyo: 1996).

Richard Kern is a regular contributor to Apartmento, Purple, Numero and Vice.



See more from Richard Kern: