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States Pop Quiz #12: Richard Kern

The transgressive cineaste and photographer on hating the word "selfie", his addiction to pulp fiction and why he's voting Hillary

As part of our States of Independence summer takeover, 50 American indie icons have volunteered to take the Dazed Pop Quiz; a quick-fire Q&A about what they love and loathe about life in the USA. Check back here every day for more from the series. 

Raised in North Carolina and fashioned in the New York underground scene, Richard Kern is the filmmaker and photographer who has maintained the attitude of an iconoclast ever since his days making movies in the post-punk climate of the 1980s. Never underestimating the power of shock value, his work has spanned the cut-and-paste, self-produced zines of those years all the way to his online photo series for Vice and countless books and solo exhibitions. And, whilst the intimate portraits of recent years have taken him all around the globe, the international mix of subjects depicted betrays a signature style as rooted in the darker aesthetics of his early experimental films, as part of the Cinema of Transgression. With his perennial muse being the female nude form, Kern’s gaze is bold yet soft, unflinching and intimate. We spoke to Kern about high school cliques, the happiness to be found in dark room solitude and his hopes for America’s future (and his own retirement years).

Which living American do you most admire and why?

Richard Kern: Howard Stern. For years, Stern has used his radio platform to open the minds of millions of loyal listeners to gay rights, women’s rights, sex worker’s rights and free speech within the format of a show that appeals to both working class slubs and one per centers. He and his team ridicule racism and hypocrisy and talk freely about their own insecurities while subtly promoting honesty, a strong work ethic and a sense of national pride. In a world where all media seems to be controlled by armies of image conscious PR people, Stern’s show seems to be the only place where celebrities talk like real people.

Which living American do you most despise and why?

Richard Kern: I try not to hate anyone but maybe Dick Cheney because I feel like he was someone who used his position to create conflicts and wars to profit on them. But I could be completely wrong.

Whose face should be on the $100 bill?

Richard Kern: Elvis? But I like Ben Franklin’s face on the hundred. There’s lots of aging grandpa hippies that have his look now.

What is your favorite quote about America?

Richard Kern: “Love it or Leave it”

What three words define the States today?

Richard Kern: Apple Google Twitter (or Instagram or Facebook instead of Twitter).

Who gave you your first break? Do you still talk?

Richard Kern: Beth B. She loaned me lights to shoot my first movie stuff and got me my first film screening at the old Danceteria in NYC. Yes, we talk fairly often. 

When and where are you the most happiest?

Richard Kern: Many places, but one was in the early 90s when I paid $75 a month to be a member of an east 12th street storefront black and white darkroom where I was the only person that used it. Two or three times a week I would crank the radio, print for a few hours, go out and grab a coffee from an old Italian spot that had $1 cappuccinos and then print some more. There were no cell phones so if someone wanted to find me they had to come by and bang on the front window. 

What high school clique were you in? Do you stay in touch?

Richard Kern: My clique was exactly like the main character nerds in Dazed and Confused [the movie] and it was pretty much the same time period. Several of us email each other regularly.

What food reminds you of home?

Richard Kern: BBQ. Where I grew up in eastern North Carolina was famous for it’s shredded pork BBQ sandwiches. That’s mushy BBQ meat with yellow cole slaw on a white ‘enriched’ burger bun. Add vinegar to taste

What smell do you associate with the city of your birth?

Richard Kern: This is no joke, my hometown smelled like flatulence. There were several factories around that put out tons of sulfur like emissions.  Sometimes it seemed like it was snowing because of the white ash that drifted through town. This was before all the EPA stuff that came around in the 60’s and 70’s. But even with the EPA, the town still smells the same. Whenever I visit with anyone, as we approach the area by car, everyone begins asking, “What’s that smell?"

What's the best road trip you've ever been on?

Richard Kern: The Vice road trips for Shot By Kern were easily the best for me in recent memory because for anywhere from 10 to 30 days we travelled from city to city, stopping only to shoot for 2 or 3 days. All I had to think about was taking photographs and eating. Great fun.

What would make you leave America forever?

Richard Kern: Nothing.

What noise reminds you of the States?

Richard Kern: The sound of any NFL football game coming out of a TV. For New York, the sound is sirens. 

What is your favorite American building?

Richard Kern: I’d like to live in the Eames House or something like it.

Ultimate American film?

Richard Kern: Taxi Driver. The first time I came to NYC in the mid 70s I was driving an art delivery truck packed with sculpture from a show at my university that I was returning to various points in America. We parked the truck and went to see Taxi Driver. I was blown away. We came out of the theater and the truck had been broken into and all the art was stolen. Welcome to NYC!

Most overrated US tourist attraction

Richard Kern: New York City 

Most underrated US tourist attraction

Richard Kern: New York City 

Favorite slang phrase?

Richard Kern: The one I hate the most is “selfie”.

What is your ultimate American guilty pleasure?

Richard Kern: Pulp fiction (not the movie). Spy series, detective series, I even read a series about a crime fightin’ game warden cowboy. I read two a week. I try to get in at least one highbrow book for every 3 pulp books.

Ultimate American album?

Richard Kern: Group Sex (1980) by The Circle Jerks. Vocalist and songwriter Keith Morris (Black Flag, OFF!) manages, with few words and simple rhymes, to convey young angst, anger, isolation and confusion in fast one minute songs that captured growing up in AmeriKa perfectly.

What law would you change or invent?

Richard Kern: Better post retirement financial services and health care for Americans. I say this because I’m rapidly approaching this age group.

When was your last run-in with the cops? What happened?

Richard Kern: Back in the late 80s, I was arrested for selling heroin to someone who was selling it to me. The cops got it backwards and the dealer went along with it. Then 25 years later – a month ago – I got a ticket for making a turn through a red light on a bike. I thanked the officer for his interest in my safety and paid the $190 fine.

If you could vote for Obama again, would you?

Richard Kern: No I want to vote for Hillary Clinton. I want to see if a woman as president will make any difference. 

If you lost it all tomorrow, what would you do the day after?

Richard Kern: The day after 9-11, I thought that this had actually happened. I thought that I would walk down to North Carolina and see if I could get a job as a carpenter somewhere.

What will America look like in 2050?

Richard Kern: You can watch the movie Blade Runner or 2001: A Space Odyssey to see how well these predictions turn out.