Richard Kern on the Gaze in the Instagram Age

Being a man with a camera is increasingly a loaded profession. We sat down with artist Richard Kern—no stranger to transgression—to discuss the difference between the male and female gaze, Petra Collins, art trolls, and much more. By Chloe Sariego.  Illustration of Kern by Maggie Dunlap.

Richard Kern is tall, confident, and not, in his words, an artist. “I take pictures” he tells me. But even as “just” a job, a man with a camera is a loaded occupation. My first reaction to Kern’s portrait series of young women in their bedrooms was distrust. His career has out-aged me by at least 20 years, and his canon of work is impressive. I’m a fan of his early collaborations with Lydia Lunch and others, as well as his work within the New York underground film movement known as The Cinema of Transgression. Kern has spent a life-time in aesthetics of transgression, but his contemporary work—mostly photographs feature young, partially-to-fully naked women—often receives harsh critique.

Lydia Lunch and Marty Nation star in “Fingered,” a 1986 short film directed by Richard Kern.

“I never ask models to pose for me,” he says. Instead, he photographs girls who reach out to him – and Instagram is a model magnet. The process is simple. When DM’d, he asks whoever has approached him to send him images of herself. Then, if and when he decides that he’s interested in shooting her, he’ll meet with her in person before finally setting up a shoot in the young woman’s home. “Most of the women never get back to me,” he explained, “they just want to know if I WOULD shoot them.” This policy – of never initiating contact with models – is part of what Kern uses to defend himself against criticisms that focus on his models’ homogeneity. He absolves himself by noting his subjects’ self-selection: “That’s generally what Instagram is – young white girls posing,” he says. Almost all of the women Kern shoots are young, conventionally beautiful, thin, and frequently white, but they weren’t always that way. His early work spanned gender and genre and focused on unconventional subjects.

For young women (artists and otherwise), earning a place on his Instagram has come to signify easy exposure, street-cred and gains in the art world. All of this indicates a well-crafted power imbalance between photographer and subject. In an increasingly critical world, is Kern’s work another needle in the haystack of problematic representation for struggling female artists? Or is it a continuation of Kern’s deep exploration of the aesthetics of sexual transgression? Finding out who Richard Kern is might help.

I don’t know who Kern is. I only met him once, on a particularly warm day in March. Kern’s Village apartment is an artistic bachelor pad despite his warnings that he’s “not an artist.” The walls are decorated in an impressive collection of paintings. “Is that Alexandra Marzella?” I ask, pointing to a painting that resembles the young artist. “No – Ally’s got much bigger tits than that,” he replies. On that note, we sit down and begin.

Alexandra Marzella in Kern’s “Medicated” series (2010-2013)

Chloe: Your Instagram was recently deleted. What’s the story behind that?

Kern: I’m sure it was too many reported photos. Right before it happened I was getting all these negative direct messages from guys like: “You are a fucking piece of shit” and “I used to really love your work, now I just think you’re a perverted old man.” I posted that message and my Instagram was deleted that very day. I don’t know how I could be bullying him after he said something like that to me. It’s just a jealousy thing I guess. On Instagram, it’s the people that hate you that are going to write something. I think about it all the time, but it’s a million times worse now than it was when I was thirty and I would get the same shit about my films. But when you’re touring a film people couldn’t just attack you [from anywhere], they’d have to go to the screening and then attack you there.

C: Being a troll was harder in the old days. How has your work changed because of the Internet?

K: Instagram is a giant thing. It’s instant promotion. I met some of the best girls that I shot because they would just write me out of the blue. And then I was doing that VICE show “Shot By Kern” that I got a ton of models from. Instagram is like a million girls with the subconscious goal of becoming notorious in reality TV culture – it’s just a new way of becoming someone, becoming an “it girl” or whatever they call it these days. That whole exhibitionist culture, you don’t need a photographer. You can just do it yourself.

C: Why did girls reach out to you after “Shot By Kern”?

K: Because it was VICE. VICE was like the TOP of the counterculture during this “VICE period,” or like the Terry Richardson period – it was a period of a real white male fantasy-driven fucking rowdiness that VICE just sold into, and at that time it was acceptable to be into it if you were a girl. And it was fucking funny—people doing crazy sex shit. There was a turning point where all of a sudden it kind of flipped and turned into this “No this isn’t funny, this is all anti-women, anti-gay, anti-anything you can think of”—but it wasn’t. I mean, some of it was – but it was really anti-everything, and that’s what was funny about it. Terry just ruined that whole thing. But you take someone like Petra Collins, for example. She was into all of that stuff. She didn’t think all of that stuff was bad. You have to have something to react against.

C: Your and Petra’s relationship is interesting—she used to help you cast models, you’ve shot her, and a lot of your work is similar in content.

K: But I’m a guy, and I definitely see women in a different way than she does.

C: How do you see them differently?  

K: She’s not looking at them with desire. The way a guy looks at a girl, in general, is completely different than the way a straight girl looks at another girl. I’m not looking at them the whole time and thinking: “I want to have sex with this person,” but I’m looking at them with a brain that is seeing them as a sexual person. I don’t think Petra is looking at them sexually. I’m talking about just looking at girls in general. While photographing I’m just making the photograph and [thinking about] what looks great. I mean, that male gaze is not a myth, and the female gaze, I would imagine, is supremely different. It would have to be, wouldn’t it?

C: Yes.

K: I asked Petra about that. There is definitely a power dynamic going on there, which exists whether you’re male or female. Because whoever is shooting, you know—they’re directing it. That’s a head-trip for photographers.

Petra Collins in Kern’s “Medicated” series (2010-2013)

C: How do you navigate that?

K: It’s a great feeling, but I rarely get to feel it. Being the boss of anything is always a great feeling.

C: Do you ever take naked pictures of yourself?

K: Not anymore. I did when I was young. I was my own model. Like everybody is.

C: Do you think women are fetishized in the art world?

K: Yes. And everywhere in the world.

C: Do you think you are contributing to it?

K: Absolutely. There’s a lot of desire out there in the world.  

C: Do you like the controversy surrounding your work?

K: No. I fucking hate it. I swear to God. I mean I totally understand the argument of “this guy is exploiting youth and nakedness,” but I don’t see it that way. I understand why people do see it that way, because I know when someone walks into a gallery and sees naked photographs it just bugs the shit out of people, like “Why is this person doing this?”  I understand them.

C: It’s good that you think about it.

K: It’s all I think about and it sucks. I just happen to have a very politically unpopular occupation.

C: Do you think girls like being shot by an older man?

K: I think some do. A lot of girls just like being shot. At a certain age, they become aware of their power, they start to realize this ability to have guys pay attention to them, and they’re figuring it out. Not necessarily to exploit people or anything, but they’re just kind of moving around in this world where they see the effect they have on other people and they’re learning from it. And this thing of being photographed is part of it for some girls. It’s part of like, “How can this person make me look, or make me see myself, or how other people see me?”

C: Why are young women your subjects?

K: Because it’s fun. But also, it’s just what I’m known for. I think about this all the time. Why? Why not. I don’t know what else to do.

Chloe Sariego is a writer and critical academic in New York. You can keep up with her at @chloesariego.



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