richard kern’s sexy, provocative and poetic polaroids
The photographer talks to i-D about shooting beautiful landscapes, pregnant dominatrixes and a man with his head in toilet as he releases a new book that collects his Polaroid works together for the first time.
Richard Kern is standing in a hotel room in Los Angeles. "You wouldn't believe my view looking out from this hotel room over this valley," he states. If he wasn't on the phone, it sounds like he'd be taking a photograph.
And if this was the 80s, he would be taking a Polaroid. Now he just uses his iPhone. For those who love nostalgia, however, all of Kern's best landscapes, portraits and travel shots are collected in Polarized, his latest book being released this weekend at Printed Matter's LA Art Book Fair, which opens tonight at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA in Los Angeles.
The New York photographer's new limited-edition book, which is being released by the Fortnight Institute and Victoria Press, features roughly 60 Polaroids taken in the 80s, 90s and early 00s. They're a visual diary that captures the behind-the-scenes moments of his life as a roving photographer over the past three decades. "And it's not all naked girls, it's a lot of stuff," he laughs. "There are landscapes shot out my window, a mountainside with a gypsy caravan in Austria and one in Los Angeles, but almost all of them were taken in my home in New York City."
It started last year, when the co-founders of the Fortnight Institute, curators Fabiola Alondra and Jane Harmon, put on a solo show of Kern's Polaroids in the East Village. "They wanted to show something nobody had seen, it started from there," he said.
Kern, who rose to prominence in the 80s alongside artists like Sonic Youth, Lydia Lunch and Henry Rollins, was initially known for his gory films from the 80s and 90s as part of the Cinema of Transgression movement spearheaded by Nick Zedd. He has built a reputation primarily as a portrait photographer - one of Kern's earliest series is black-and-white shots of girls with guns from 1987 - and more recently he's shot Kylie Jenner without makeup, Chance the Rapper under a pink light and a topless Marina Abramovic. He has built a collection of books sold on his website, releasing over 10 titles that range from New York Girls to Shot By Kern.
Especially with nude photography and provocative shots, some photographers are shy and use the camera lens to hide behind. It seems Kern is no different. "When I started shooting girls in late 80s, it was the perfect excuse to be with a naked woman but you didn't ruin it by having sex," he said. "When you step over that line, everything changes. I don't care what anyone says."
The reality was different to what some people saw in his photos. "Everyone thought I was fucking all the models, but when I did shoots abroad, I would go back to my little hotel room and wonder what I was going to do for the rest of the night," he said.
Kern first got into shooting Polaroids because he was inspired by the work of Greek artist Lucas Samaras, an early Polaroid experimenter who manipulated the film while it was processing in the 1970s. But Kern mostly used Polaroids to make test shots for his films and photo shoots. "Before digital, you had no idea how the shot would turn out, now you just look at the back of your camera," he said.
The book features New York skylines, cloudy sunsets and several studio shots. In one, a naked man has his head in a toilet with his legs standing up in the air. "It's a toilet sitting in the middle of the room which is not that cool," Kern recalls. "It was a long time ago, I had the idea of people flushing themselves down the toilet and I guess they kind of do that in Trainspotting."
Another photo in the book is a shot of Lydia Lunch in a still from his 1987 film, Submit to Me Now, a short film where she acts as a sex phone operator and has red hair. "I'd never met anyone like her back then," he recalls. "You'd suggest anything to her and Lydia would say 'alright let's do it.' She never thought anything was weird."
There is also a shot of a pregnant woman wearing a white bra and panties with her hands over her stomach. "She was a dominatrix," said Kern. "I remember wondering who got her pregnant?"
The model starred in his film Sewing Circle from 1992, where Kembra Pfahler's vagina was sewn together. "She was the one doing the sewing," Kern states. He doesn't shoot with Polaroids anymore, not even for fun. Nowadays, he travels with a DXO One, which attaches to his iPhone and is so small, he can keep it in his jean pocket. "You have to be doing what the technology is doing now, that's my opinion," he said.
Just last week, Kern was kicked off Instagram after accumulating almost 150,000 followers. He had to start a new account from scratch with a new outlook. "Every single thing I posted was getting reported, I had some vicious haters," said Kern. "I had photos of guys kissing guys and girls kissing girls. There wasn't ever any sex on my page but now I'll keep it super tame."
Printed Matter's La Art Book fair opens tonight from 6 to 9 p.m. at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. Richard Kern does a book signing on Sunday, February 26 from 2 to 4 p.m.
Text Nadja Sayej
Photography Richard Kern