No stranger to the underground, self-confessed voyeur Richard Kern has shone a light on New York’s underbelly since he first gained notoriety in the city’s thriving East Village art scene in the 1980s.
His photo and film work are often earmarked with keywords like sex, violence and perversion – early titles include Fingered (1986), Submit To Me (1985) and Manhattan Loves Suicides (1985), as well as his now-ceased bi-monthly zine series (1979 to 1983) The Heroin Addict (later renamed to The Valium Addict) – but digging deeper than an R-rated aesthetic, it’s clear Kern has never been afraid to pick apart the dark side of the human condition.
Eschewing film to predominantly work with still imagery in the 90s, since then, his work has often been recognisable for his use of young or novice models in their bedrooms and bathrooms, typically with no clothes or makeup on. Telling Dazed Digital in a previous interview, "I shoot just anywhere where it’s possible for a girl to not be wearing clothes”, explaining that instead of the posed images typically championed by lads mags – of which he has also shot for – he looks for an innocence, adding, “I’m looking for somebody who is not trying too hard to be hot.”
But his adopted city of New York is set to see a new side to his vision. Aiming to strip his work of its ‘erotic’ label and look past these “seductive aesthetics”, Kern returns to the East Village for his latest show, Polarized, which promises to look outside the frames we’re so familiar with by sharing unreleased Polaroids from the 80s, 90s and 00s. Slides, video, books, early experimental publications, flyers, test shots and ’side’ photographs, such as footage of drugs busts captured from his apartment window or portraits of friends and collaborators such as Lydia Lunch, will all be featured. Ahead of the launch next week, we chatted to Kern over email.
“I used to shoot for sex mags. The photos I shot for those mags had a very distinctive purpose. When I'm shooting my own stuff, that purpose (sexually stimulating the viewer) is the last thing on my mind” – Richard Kern
These photos are not only never been seen but they’re from two or three decades ago. Why show them now?
Richard Kern: The owners of Fortnight (the gallery) both have an archivist interest and therefore wanted to do something from my archives.
Why only show from this period, the 80s and 90s? Why not show from then until now?
Richard Kern: To be honest, there are photos in the show that were taken in the 2000s, maybe up till 2005. The second part of your question is obvious to anyone who has ever used a digital camera. Digital photography eliminated the need to (take) a polaroid test shot. Pros used Polaroids to instantly see what the light setup looked like. Now using Polaroid as a medium is to me like someone using film, it's done only to add an effect to a photograph. It's like recording music on analog tapes and releasing it on vinyl. It's like shooting in colour digital, turning off the colour and calling it a black and white photo. it's like adding a filter to your photos on Instagram... I could go on and on.
The press information for the show mentions you are mistakenly often labelled as an erotic photographer – why do you believe people view your work this way, and, in turn, why do you challenge this label?
Richard Kern: I have shot what would be called erotic photography because I used to shoot for sex mags. The photos I shot for those mags had a very distinctive purpose. When I'm shooting my own stuff, that purpose (sexually stimulating the viewer) is the last thing on my mind.
It’s fascinating that you are showing what’s happening outside of the frames and images that we have come to know of your work – do you think this takes away the magic from your work at all, or adds to the story?
Richard Kern: I don't think it takes away from the regular shots. Any behind the scenes info from the past is interesting to me. I have a long black and white Super 8 film made from footage that I shot while I was shooting stills between 1990-1999 that I show excerpts from during exhibitions of my older work and it's always interesting to see the girl from some classic photo moving around in the same setup on a monitor. In this show, there will also be an hour-long clip edited from footage recorded on a stationary video camera that I used to set up during each shoot.
You’ve been living and documenting New York for decades – what is it about the city that has held your fascination for so long?
Richard Kern: Access to new talent, good food, and my rent controlled apartment.
Polarized opens 9 September – 9 October 2016 at New York’s Fortnight Institute
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