In the Eye of Richard Kern

By Eugene S. Robinson


Because if beauty’s in the eye of the beholder, then behold – and boldly.

Pictures of women have to pass through a minefield of possible missteps for them to be anything other than predictable. Too idealized and they weirdly mythologize women (see: fashion ads). Too saucy and they start to walk a quasi-porn line (see: every music video made these days). But for a clean, clear-eyed and almost achingly direct look into how women are seeing themselves, we’d have to look through the eyes of Richard Kern, an auteur whose early start indicated he’d end up almost anywhere but here.

In a swelter of packaged “reality” – from TV to airbrushed models – Kern’s efforts to capture realness seem, if not noble, then at least well-intentioned. He shoots almost exclusively young women, all over the age of 18, and nude or not, the subjects seem unguarded and frank. “Photography is intimate, and intimacy can be real,” says Kern.

Originally from Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, the 59-year-old photographer came into his own on the Lower East Side of New York. Not on the Lower East Side of today, replete with hipsters and fixies, but the Lower East Side of the 1980s, where the daily perils were real and not just metaphysical. New York’s house was in disarray, financially and otherwise, and while you could still get an apartment for $500 on Orchard Street, you were just as likely as not to get mugged or stabbed by a junkie on your way there. 



“There were a lot of idiots with cameras,” says Lydia Lunch, a writer/singer and frequent early subject of Kern’s. “But no idiot quite like Kern.” He shot Lunch in some of his earlier film work, Right Side of My Brain and Fingered, which got him grouped into what the wags called the Cinema of Transgression. Heavy on shock and confrontation, Kern’s films set a certain downward standard, but through it all was a clear and composed camera eye.

”Terry Richardson works some of the same sort of aesthetic,” says Allan MacDonell, longtime editor and one of the first to hire Kern as a photographer. ”Terry has managed to gain a wider commercial acceptance with his pictures, but Richard has maintained a quiet connection with his subjects that is in some ways more revealing, even when the photos are less explicit.” Brand differentiator: Kern, vibing Southern gentleman, brings a certain innocence to the art of shooting nudes. Richardson? Much more complicated legacy.

“Kern’s style, the way he framed shots, the models he was drawn to, the settings he would capture them in, their hair, makeup and whatever clothing they would step out of, the expressions on the models’ faces and their body language, it was all very authentic,” continues MacDonell. “At the time, one of my editors asked Richard if he was making money with his photography. He said, ‘No, I’m a painter.’ My editor said, ‘Do you work in oils? Watercolors?’ Richard: ‘No, man. I paint galleries.’”


Kern’s klatch

That was then. Now: 11 books, 30 international shows at places like the Whitney and MOMA, regular contributions to Vice and GQ, a traveling series called “Girls With Medication,” branding a line of apparel for the UK-based Addict store, and a video for the great French band Indochine that premiered in France last month. And most recently, a show in Poland that’s an exhibition of celebrities and famous folks he’s shot that started in Sofia, Bulgaria, and made its way over to Sydney and Melbourne, Australia. 

“I started taking photos when I was a kid,” says Kern from the Lower East Side, where he now lives with wife Martynka Wawrzyniak, a noteworthy photographer in her own right, and a kid. “And then started doing fanzines to show them off. Then took the stills for my movies. Then nudes. Now I realize I haven’t shot nudes all year almost.”



“But if I could say there was anything I was doing, that would be to make things more real.”

In the midst of a machinery that seems to be gunning for anything but – we’re looking at you, pop culture – Kern’s efforts are much more than welcome.