To honor the 20th anniversary of New York Girls and the re-release of Richard Kern‘s first book, the East Village photographer and Cinema of Transgression filmmaker is running two concurrent gallery shows– one is in Chelsea and the second opens tonight at Marlborough Broome on the Lower East Side. I stopped by the gallery yesterday to check out the photos and speak with Kern.
“It was so long ago, almost seems like somebody else did it,” he laughed. “It was definitely a different time period.” When I arrived, I found Kern sitting quietly at the front desk. I was late but, as he explained later, I’d given him a chance to catch up on Instagram.
New York Girls Revisited opens tonight, and even if you’ve had a chance to check out his broader retrospective at Marlborough’s Chelsea location, this show delves deeper in the ’90s specifically, the era that informed New York Girls. The show includes several previously unreleased photos that either didn’t quite fit with the book, or ones Kern had simply passed over.
“I went through all the old junk and I found photos I’d completely missed,” he said, scanning the mostly nude portraits, Kern’s specialty, on the walls. But these aren’t just any nudes– the women are gun-toting, cigarette-smoking, tattooed rock n’ roll types. It’s what fashion photography has always wanted to be and the way we’re told New York City used to be.
You might recognize Kern’s video work from his old Vice series, “Shot by Kern” or group his photography with work by some of his contemporaries, Terry Richardson and Ryan McGinley. It’s all sex, fetid glamour, and girls on toilets. “I do all this bathroom stuff, girls in the bathroom. I don’t know why, but it’s fun,” Kern laughed.
The New York Times wrote his work is fraught with “uncommonly visceral instances of the so-called male gaze.” This is undeniably true, and while Kern plays heavily on voyeurism, an innately human instinct that manifests itself to different degrees in everyone, the women in his photographs seem less like objectified ninnies and more like women with stories of their own and agency to boot.
Kern said that he’s never been one to approach his models. Instead, they reach out to him or he meets people through an existing network of friends and other people he’s worked with. “The one constant I can tell you is true, is [that] all of them I felt like they were testing themselves,” he explained. “They just want to have some fun, do something different. Everybody comes to New York looking for some fun thing they can do, there’s no manipulation going on or any of that. These girls just say, ‘Hey I want to shoot photos.’”
Kern’s New York Girls appear as simmering sex pots amidst a background of either implied or explicit “alternative” lifestyles (drugs, punk rock, tattoos). I wondered where the line was (I mean, Kern did have a zine called “The Heroin Addict” in the ’80s…)– was this rebellion lived? Half-lived? Or is it just aesthetic?
“Before this, when I was making the films it was just a drug-infused scene. It still goes on quite a bit. One girl told me the other day she likes to do acid every two weeks. I was like, acid? really? It seems like such a weird thing to be into out of all the stuff, you know?” he laughed. “I don’t think a lot of these people did drugs, to be honest– I’d say it was half and half. A lot of people were strippers. It just seemed like I knew a bunch of those people at one time. There was a lot of that scene in the program at that time. It was like get clean, get some tattoos, go work in a sex club— that kind of stuff was seen as badass. Maybe it’s still that way, I don’t know.”
Besides being a bunch of femme fatales, the New York Girls exude a sense of power. To me, these women look badass. They seem strong and cool, rather than meek, angelic, or holy in some way– they are exempt from having to live up to the impossible standards of the Public Virgin/Secret Slut male ideal. Instead, they can be as “bad” as they want.
Unfortunately you won’t find the thicker reissued New York Girls at the gallery or anywhere just yet– the release has been delayed until January. “I thought we’d have copies of it here, so I could have an opening where I sign books, where I only had to go out one time,” Kern laughed darkly. Instead, you’ll find a time machine of sorts to a very different Kern. One black-and-white image– a woman whose face is obscured, lying face-down on a bed made with white, crumpled sheets– is one of Kern’s earliest nudes. “This one’s really old,” he pointed to the photo. “It was probably the second girl I shot naked. But that was before I was doing any of this junk.”
In 1995, the year the book came out, Kern was shifting his attention from filmmaking (the work for which he’s widely known for as a member of the Cinema of Transgression movement) to photography. Since this period, when his photos were dominated by dramatic contrast and film still-like shots were the norm, Kern says his work has changed dramatically. “That kind of lighting was very popular in music videos, porn, and movies and stuff– that kind of unexplained color lighting,” he explained. “They’ll walk into a room and it’s all pink and blue, but it’s just a regular room, there’s no reason for it to be those colors, but somehow it is. In porn, they didn’t have to make excuses.”
After 1995, the photographer’s work transformed to the “super realist” style we’re more acquainted with when it comes to Kern. “Right around that time Terry [Richardson] was getting big, and there was this whole snapshot phenomenon,” he recalled. “That trend became big, and I started looking at my style. I went away from this, and it’s not snapshot, I just tried to make it look more and more real until there was no lighting at all or one carefully-placed light.”
Kern is now 60. (“Sometimes I forget how old I am, a lot of times,” he laughed. “But I’m not 20.”) And he admitted he had trouble recalling the particulars of the first New York Girls show. “Almost 20 years ago, shy of a month or two, I did my first show in New York at Feature Inc.,” Kern recalled. The gallery closed last year after the founder Hudson passed away. “Pascal, the director of Marlborough Chelsea, he was a big fan of Hudson and he wanted to do something related to Feature. It’s downtown. Feature used to be on Greene Street back then, so this one’s similar to that show, not the exact show, but it’s pretty close.”
There are some distinctions. The 2015 show has fewer bondage-related images. “It’s non-binding bondage,” Kern explained. By that, he means the girls tied up here don’t arouse a sense of seriousness. A girl with a dark bob and no clothing, for example, is hanging from a doorway; her hands and feet are bound but she’s clearly laughing. “It wasn’t dramatic enough and the book New York Girls was super dramatic,” he said. “Hey, she’s smiling, she’s happy. She doesn’t have this mean stare on her face.”
Though he has a light-hearted, borderline humorous understanding of his former preoccupation with fetish culture, Kern has moved beyond that theme in his work. “I would never use photos like that anymore, I just feel weird about it. There’s all kinds of differences. I mean, you just get old. I feel a little pervy now.”
I was surprised to find that Kern still seems a little bit sensitive to what people think of him, particularly in the current social climate. “People must see me as such a pervert, but everything is so politically correct now. You can’t be any certain way or you’re just destroyed,” he lamented. “I noticed Larry Clark gets shit now, I noticed even Ryan [McGinley] got some shit for his last show, for his obsession with ‘young, beautiful people.’ You have to really watch what you say.”
Kern pointed out that any criticism of Ryan McGinley was sort of ridiculous, seeing that “he’s still young, you know?” The rules change when you’re older, though. “Richard Prince is a good example. He loves that kind of shit, or so it appears. But that whole Instagram shit he did, that was so blatant. I thought, ‘God, this is genius.’ It’s got so many wrong things about it, that it’s almost sublime in today’s climate.”
It’s strange to hear that, in a way, Kern feels censorship has become a bigger problem over the years, whereas my knee-jerk instinct was to assume censorship has eased up over time. But surely people have grown more tolerant of nudes, right? “In my old gallery, my old dealer, he pointed out that when people walk into a show like this, the first thing they have to get over is that there’s nudity. That’s a big wall for people to get over,” Kern explained.
Still, Kern concedes things were different in 1995. “There was definitely a different vibe, it was more people like things but they were afraid to say they liked them. And that hasn’t changed, ever. It’s still a problem sometimes,” Kern argued. “Actually, I think that this old stuff, time gives it some kind of validity that it didn’t have. With the early shows, I got what I call grief sometimes from the press or critics. I was used to that from the films I made, but now they’re going to be shown at MoMA next year. They’re doing a retrospective— in the film section. What was seen as so outrageous just becomes, like, tame.”
Though he didn’t go into specifics, Kern recalled being criticized for his depiction of bondage at some point around his first New York Girls show. “There was stuff I shot back then that I didn’t think anything about and I would do a show and I would be hurt. I was so fragile, when there would be negative reviews,” he remembered. “Like all the bondage stuff, I knew why I was doing it back then. I was into Araki and all these guys; for them it was definitely kind of a control thing. But it’s also that you get to get this close to their skin, when you put on this stuff, but you’re not touching them. Still! It was such a weird sensation. But I didn’t say, like, ‘Hey, let me tie you up.’ It would be more like girls saying”–Kern perked up and squeaked—“‘Hey! Can we do some bondage photos now?'”
Also on view at New York Girls Revisited is a “behind-the-scenes” video taken from Super 8 footage shot during photo sessions from the ’80s through 1995. “It was a movie I never released. I’ve shown pieces of it, like in 2011, but that was a really hard version,” he recalled. “Because you know it’s got hard to soft. This one is very soft. When I say ‘hard’ I mean there’s a guy jerking off in his mouth, there’s people fucking, there’s a woman taking a dump, naked guys dancing, naked girls dancing, all kinds of shit.”
Some of the women who appear in the portraits on the walls are in the video. One girl– depicted slumped over a toilet, wearing nothing but roller skates and a giant, furry red coat– really stood out to me when I noticed her again in the video. She was skating not-expertly around a Williamsburg rooftop, stumbling and smiling into the camera. You could see the bridge in the background. She was having a good time. The video helps you understand these are real women, with the ability to smile awkwardly and mess up their hair, behind the sultry statues on the walls.
For Kern, they’re all three-dimensional. “Well, these girls are all in their 40s now, at least,” he smiled. “And this one”–he gestured to a portrait of a woman with blonde curls and bondage cuffs– “she still looks pretty much exactly the same.” Kern explained she’s now a “successful business woman” with her own skateboard shop in Williamsburg. “I’m still in touch with a lot of them,” he said. “That’s Christina Martinez, she’s from Boss Hog, or a band from back then.”
As can be expected, some of the women he’s shot have died. “She died of cancer, the cigarette-smoking one,” Kern said, pointing to a black-and-white portrait on the wall. “She got big and fat,” he laughed. “Well, it’s alright she got big and fat I guess.” Others “have had really rough lives,” he explained. “One girl, she became a bad junkie, just way all the way. She was in rehab last I saw her. Hopefully she got her shit together because she was super talented, but anyway— that kind of stuff happens.”
For most of the women, New York Girls was a lifetime ago. “Some of them, I won’t say who, they’re probably not gonna be happy that the book’s out again,” Kern laughed mischievously. “It’s a part of their past they maybe wanted to forget. Another one, I printed a photo of her in Vice and she wrote me and said, ‘Richard! I’ve got two daughters now and they go on Vice and see me naked!’ So I had to take that off.” Kern still enjoys stirring up trouble, a sort of charming aspect of his voyeurism.
Though Kern’s ways of meeting women over the years have shifted to prospective models private messaging him on Instagram (“a great resource for models,” he said) not much has changed about his methods. “I always meet them first, I ask to meet them. And that’s to see if they’re going to show up, mainly. I talk to them a bit before we shoot and see what they’re into. I kind of get a feeling for where their head is,” he said. “In the past, I already knew them marginally, but you get to know them more as you shoot. It’s kind of like dating, except nothing is happening. It’s weird. You’re learning about someone through the process of shooting them.”
Asking invasive questions as part of the interview process is the norm. “It’s all part of getting to see or find out what you never get to ask somebody,” he said.
Kern revealed that he has re-interviewed several of the women from New York Girls. “I said, ‘So how’d it turn out? Your life?’” he laughed. “And many of them are already half way through, but I found out that my perceptions about them at the time were different than their perceptions of themselves.” The change in attitudes over the years and re-assessment of past lives was something Kern found fascinating. He said he hopes to make a video soon of the two sets of interviews– “the young girls and the older girls”– side-by-side.
“One told me all this great stuff,” he said, gritting his teeth. “And it was all about how she used her prettiness and sexuality to manipulate the men she met, people she wanted to help her with things, her career and things like that. This was when she was 18.” One day, Kern said, she told him,”‘One day I realized that they didn’t care what I wanted, they were happy to give it to me. They were getting what they wanted.’” Kern said the woman refused to retell the story on camera. “She 180-changed her viewpoint,” he said. “But this isn’t anything new. It’s been going on since the beginning of time. Guys do it, too.”
For all this recollection, Kern seemed very calm to me, and pretty unemotional about the past. But I had to ask if he associated the photos with a youthful time– after all, the title is “New York Girls,” not “New York Women.” Was he a “boy” then, too, even if twenty years ago Kern rang in at just about 40? “Well, I don’t associate them with anything because I don’t even… well, I relate to them,” he laughed. “Yes, a youthful time.”
But the ’90s marked a turning point for Kern. He had quit drugs and photography was what was keeping him off drugs. “It was a nice safe way to… I thought it was going to be this really cool thing, I mean it still is. I guess. I thought that if I was old and taking photos of naked girls, it would be fun. This is what I thought when I was 34,” he recalled. “It is still fun, but when I was 34 I didn’t have any idea that people would see me in a negative way a lot of times. That part never occurred to me, that people come to it with their own stuff. They’re seeing it, but they’re seeing you through their eyes. And I don’t blame ’em, I do the same thing.”
Recently a friend of his, “a woman I’ve known since, god, forever,” told him: “Don’t you understand, they’re so jealous that you got to do this?” Kern was taken aback. “And I said, ‘Really?’ It never occurred to me that people would get jealous,” he said. “It’s like, why don’t they do it if they want to do it? It’s not that hard.”
New York Girls Revisited runs at Marlborough Broome, 331 Broome Street on the Lower East Side from Thursday Nov. 19th through Wednesday Dec. 23rd.