Richard Kern has been on the cutting edge of the underground art, film, photography, and music scenes for so long that if he weren’t a human being, he would be an institution. His photos and short films starring anti-culture icons have influenced generational waves of youth-culture artists and brands, establishing an aesthetic that has been co-opted by everything from American Apparel to Vice.
Kern’s book titles include New York Girls, Model Release, Kern Noir, and Contact High—a collection of portraits taken of models as they inhale flower fumes.
With his work being documented in highbrow art periodicals and museum retrospectives, Kern’s creative output is destined for long-running impact. You can track that current and future relevance on the photographer’s site.
Conversely, if you are mostly in this life for bodily thrills, check out Kern’s Instagram account, but maybe not while you’re at your girlfriend’s mom’s house, and she’s lurking in the vicinity of your screen.
The Skeeve: How high did you get from shooting Contact High?
Richard Kern: The size of the room and the ventilation determined how stoned I got. When I started shooting this series, I hadn’t smoked pot in years. I definitely remember feeling very different and a little too self aware each time I did one of these photos. I always shot these setups as the very last thing because the mood always changes dramatically. This happened the other day—I shot a girl smoking pot while sitting in a bathtub. She got super self-conscious about her hair, thinking it looked funny in the tub, and stopped the shoot.
The Skeeve: How is it different shooting people you know versus someone you’ve just met?
Richard Kern: Ninety percent of the time I meet the model before I shoot so we can talk about what they are up for and that they will show up on the day of the shoot. When I don’t know someone, I’m going in cold. This happens fairly often shooting celebs or fashion models—things that are for jobs. I go in with 50 / 50 chance of having fun.
The Skeeve: Why photography?
Richard Kern: My father was a newspaper photographer. Since I was a little kid, I played with his equipment and then started doing my own stuff. I lived in a super boring small town. When my friends and I took photos, it was a way to feel like we were doing something interesting.
The Skeeve: Do you ever catch yourself feeling pervy at work, and how do you deal with that?
Richard Kern: Yes that happens. I keep my mouth shut hopefully.
The Skeeve: How has the Internet changed the way you work?
Richard Kern: The Internet, or specifically Tumblr and Instagram, has fostered the creation of a whole new class of people, mostly women, that see being photographed and taking their own photos as a way to get famous quickly.
Since I don’t approach models directly and never have, Instagram in particular has been instrumental in getting my work seen by tons of wanna be models.
All photos copyright Richard Kern.