Counter to many photographer's professional instincts, Richard Kern not only prefers to work with modelling novices, but when working with professional models he actively endeavours to strip away their learned behaviours. Despite shooting commercially for some of the world’s most recognisable fashion and men’s titles including Purple, V, GQ, Hustler and Playboy, his most exciting work comes from his borderline voyeuristic, portraits of young women. Ahead of his latest London exhibition, Kern speaks to Dazed Digital about how the voyeuristic tendencies evident in his work permeate his everyday life, and explains his preference for shooting young girls.
Dazed Digital: Why do you often shoot girls with with little or no make-up?
Richard Kern: I’m just looking for someone looking as innocent or as unconcerned about their appearance as possible. Someone who’s not trying to make themselves look beautiful is going to look way more innocent. My wife for example has never ever worn make-up to my knowledge. I think I’ve seen her in it one time when she was doing a shoot for somebody and I don’t think any of the girls I’ve gone out with wore make-up. For one, it’s not something you want to kiss.
Dazed Digital: You always seem to get the girls doing some sort of activity when they’re shot. Why is that?
Richard Kern: Usually, it would be something that they’d be doing when they have a reason not to have their clothes on, although I don’t know if girls smoke pot when they don’t have their clothes on, but I’ve seen it and it’s definitely a nice combo. I shoot a lot of girls just lying in bed because that’s somewhere they would be not be wearing clothes, or in a bathroom, or around the house. I shoot just anywhere where it’s possible for a girl to not be wearing clothes but not posing, the posing just kills it.
Dazed Digital: Do you actually discourage the girls from doing model-type poses when you’re shooting?
Richard Kern: If I’m shooting for somebody like GQ then I’m like ‘Okay, do your stuff. Look sexy’, but otherwise I try to avoid it.
Dazed Digital: Why do you like to shoot such young or young looking girls?
Richard Kern: It’s just what I do and it’s been the same for years. There is something about the youngness and innocence, hopefully before they’ve really gotten a bit hardened to the world. I’m looking for somebody who is not trying too hard to be hot.
Dazed Digital: Is this innocence element what inspired your schoolgirl series?
Richard Kern: Yes, I shot a girl a few years ago who had a schoolgirl outfit. I think she was 18 or 19. She was in college but she still had braces and she had her school clothes that she still wore sometimes. I shot that and it just looked so goofy so I started shooting more. I try to get girls right out of school. I shot some girls for that series school too, I mean they were the right age but they were still in school. It was pretty amazing to be shooting somebody in high school. That sounds pervy but what I was doing was, ‘this is the school portrait and this is what she looks like without the clothes, without the identity associated with the clothing.’
Dazed Digital: Are you a voyeur in your everyday life?
Richard Kern: I’m heavily into voyeurism and I think most people are, not just with girls but everything. Most people these days are walking around looking at their Blackberries or their iPhones but there’s a lot of stuff out there. I saw a girl the other day, me and my wife were walking down 14th Street and we saw a girl with her boyfriend and she was walking and talking real animatedly wearing a loose t-shirt and she didn’t realise that her boob was hanging out. Everybody in the street was just staring at her and she was just walking along and everybody had a big smile on their face. Then in the same spot two days ago I saw someone on a bicycle get completely squished. I was like ‘What is that weird meat on the ground?’ and I realised it was that person’s legs and they were crawling away from it. It was disgusting. That’s the other extreme of the stuff you see when you’re looking. I see a flower, a flower in the rain and it’s beautiful.
Shot By Kern is on at Kenny Schachter / ROVE, Hoxton Square, May 21 to June 26