I moved to New York in 1978.
I was looking in SoHo forever, because that was the neighborhood then. SoHo was cheap, but I couldn’t find anything under $300. People kept telling me to look in the East Village, and I finally did. I think the first apartment I got there, on 13th Street, was $178 a month.
You had to get the Village Voice on Tuesday night at midnight, because that’s where the apartment listings were. I showed up to see the apartment at 8:00 AM. There was a whole line of people waiting but I was the only person who brought cash with me, so I got it. But when I came back that night, there were all these trash cans set up with fires in them and all these drug dealers going like, “Smiley face. Smiley face.” You know, “C and D. C and D.” I realized then that I’d moved into a drug building. Three floors were processing, and two floors were shooting galleries. It was weird. Me and two other guys moved in at the same time. None of us had any idea, but we got these giant apartments for dirt cheap. I’m from a small town in North Carolina—I had no idea about all this shit.
When I moved here, it was in that era when Ford told New York to “Drop dead,” or whatever he said. It was a recession, and everything was very similar to the way it is now as far as, like, boarded up buildings everywhere and no employment. Except I wasn’t aware of this, because I had just moved into it. As a young kid, it just seemed like a normal life to me, as I imagine it will to my son. But the crime was really bad. I got mugged four or five times—like violently mugged. It was a lot of crime. Now it seems like it’s going back to that era where tons of people have left the city. And the violence. Someone told me someone was killed on my corner two days ago.
I think it’s the first time in forever that rents have gone down. During the pandemic, another apartment and mine were the only two occupied apartments in my whole building. All the rest of them left. They either had places to move to, or they were students who just picked up and left, you know?
Living around all those drug dealers, I became a heroin addict.
I can look out my windows and see empty apartments in the buildings behind me. Just tons of them. It’s looking very similar to when I first moved here, but there was this whole period in between where my landlord—who, of course, would like me to move out so he could raise the rent—would say, “This is no place to be raising a son.” And I’d say, “Look around. It’s all rich kids living in these apartments now. It’s not a bad scene anymore.”
I left New York in 1987. I was a junkie. Living around all those drug dealers, I became a heroin addict and I decided to move to San Francisco to get clean, which is the worst place to move to get clean. When I moved back, I lucked out and got another cheap apartment on 3rd Street.
I sold pot in the early years before I moved. That’s how I financed all my old movies and shit. I had done it in high school, too—that’s how I paid for my college. Is it okay to say that or is this going to get me in legal trouble somehow?
I was around 22 and I had a job working for an artist. When you’re working all day doing some kind of physical labor, and then try to do your own thing at night, it’s really hard. A friend of my girlfriend said, “Hey, do you know anybody that would like to buy some pot?” And this guy pretty much set me up in the biz.
For years people kept saying, “You better get out of this business, dude. You better get out.” I only got out when I got clean. The last time I tried to do a drug deal, it was probably around ‘88. I came back from San Francisco but I knew a guy who was making and selling acid there. I said, “Can you send me a little ounce of LSD to my P.O. box?” But he never did it. And thank god, because I later found out I was being investigated and people were going through everything I was receiving at that P.O. box. I would have really done some serious time for that.
This was around when I started making my first movies, and one of my films got seized at the Canadian border. They said it had bestiality and pedophilia and all this shit, which was just total bullshit. But that started an investigation into me. People I knew in Europe and some friends of mine in Switzerland got picked up by the police and questioned about me because they thought I was running some kind of international snuff ring or something.
One of my friends in Sweden called me and said, “Hey, do you know you’re being investigated?” I eventually got some papers about what they were accusing me of and it was all this crap based on this one film, The Evil Cameraman. They thought that a woman who was 30 years old was underage in the video.
There’s no place like the art world to find super conservative people posing as open minded people.
Most of the old films and stuff I did were pretty direct responses to the art world. I was trying to piss them off. And I was hugely successful at doing that because there’s no place like the art world to find super conservative people posing as open minded people. But what’s so funny is that even though these films—Fingered in particular—were so hated back then, and now they’re in the MoMA collection. It’s just turned completely around.
And the same films that were called misogynist and everything—those movies are seen as feminist now. People I worked with became feminist icons. The way it works is if you’re doing something that adults hate and kids love, those kids grow up. They get in a position of authority and they are nostalgic about the stuff that influenced them in the first place. That’s how it becomes part of the status quo.
I have trouble with the term “artist.” It’s derogatory. I would say I’m just a photographer. We used to make fun of our friends who were “artists,” you know, and give them so much shit. A couple of them went on to be huge artists and they were like, “Who’s laughing now?”
Growing up where I did, the only artist I’d ever heard of was Andy Warhol. Maybe Jackson Pollock. Just like kids today, when I was in school, I had no clue what I wanted to do. Zero. I basically went to college to get out of the draft because I didn’t want to go to Vietnam and get killed.
When I moved to New York, I was so naïve. I guess I still am naïve, but I had this really utopian version of the art world. That art was a pure, untouched-by-money kind of endeavor. When I got here and saw what it was really like, I soured on it quickly. But I also moved here because of the music. It was Sex Pistols, the Ramones, and all that shit. And I got heavily into that whole anarchy thing.
I have trouble with the term “artist.” It’s derogatory.
I was really disillusioned with the way the art world worked here. I had done sculpture in school—that was my thing. And conceptual art. I didn’t even know where to begin here but I thought, Okay, I always wanted to make a movie. I’ll just get a camera and make a movie.
The first one I made was Goodbye 42nd Street. I was spending a lot of time up on 42nd Street, going to the grindhouse places with my friends. And then whoever the mayor was announced that they were going to close 42nd Street and redo the whole thing. So Goodbye 42nd Street was like a goodbye to this area. I was good friends with this woman Beth B, and she encouraged me and loaned me equipment and everything.
I sent it to be screened at this place ABC No Rio, an artist collective that was supposed to be really cutting edge. But they rejected it. They said it promoted all the wrong social or ethical or moral values. And I was like, What? How can they reject something from an open screening? How is that possible? That just pissed me off even more.
It started as a joke and now it’s taught in film classes.
So, a lot of my old stuff was just driven by, “I’ll show you,” that kind of thing. Beth would say, “The more controversial the stuff is, the more attention you’ll get.” And around that time I met Nick Zedd who came up with the idea of the Cinema of Transgression. He said, “You know, we should just call ourselves this. If we call it a movement, people will have something to refer to, and when they’re complaining about it they can just call it that, and everybody will start talking about it.” And he was 100% right. It started as a joke and now it’s taught in film classes.
I also met Lydia Lunch around that time through this artist David Wojnarowicz. She was already really notorious and was looking for someone to make films with. She had some ideas, I had some ideas, and that pretty much just launched everything.
We did The Right Side of My Brain together, and then we did Fingered, and Fingered was a huge, huge success. I mean, it was really despised, but that’s what made it. It was kind of like the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks in the sense that when I was in school, I had heard about the Sex Pistols saying “Fuck the Queen” or whatever, and I just had to have that album. It didn’t matter what was on it. I just had to have it. And it worked that way with Fingered, too. All the negative press just made people want to see it that much more.
I never paid for an ad, but the films got all over the place in fanzines. Fanzines were really huge at the time. They were a nice alternative to Rolling Stone or whatever else was out there. Before the films, I had made some fanzines. One was called The Heroin Addict. One was called The Valium Addict. One was called Dumb Fucker, and then a bunch of others with pretty much the same themes. Total negativity. The subtitle of The Heroin Addict was something like “The Magazine For People Who Hate Everything, But Are Afraid To Do Heroin.” Of course, I actually got around to that eventually.
The films were super nihilistic. The main objective with all of them was just to mess up your way of thinking about sex and relationships, because at the time it seemed to me that the root of all problems was relationships. The drive for some kind of romantic attachment. Especially while you’re young, you’re just insane about that stuff.
When I got into drugs more, they got darker. Submit To Me Now is probably the darkest one. I don’t even know what dark is, but that was when I was really a bad junkie. And that’s when I left New York. I was like, Okay. This is it. I’m done. I’m getting out of here. I’m going somewhere else. And, then, I got off drugs.
When I moved back to New York, I had zero money, but I still had some notoriety. I started working as a handyman at this place called Time Café. It’s gone now, but it was like the first big organic restaurant. It was owned by Eric Goode, the guy who would end up making Tiger King, and they hired me because they remembered me from night clubs and stuff.
When I moved back to New York, I had zero money, but I still had some notoriety.
I remember one time I was on the floor in the restaurant, scraping and replacing some tile down on my knees, and this guy that I had worked with a few years before comes up and goes, “So, this is what’s happened to Richard Kern.” But it paid like 10 bucks an hour, so it was great.
The only thing I could afford to do back then was take black and white photos. So I started out doing that, and shooting my friends and friends of friends. Like I said, I didn’t really want to be in a relationship, so I liked the idea of shooting naked photos of people because you could be in an intimate situation without anything bad happening. Without any involvement or anything. Intimacy without risk or attachment.
Someone from Film Threat magazine asked me if I’d like to do a book of my photos. I went through my photos and I realized, man, I only had like 20 good photographs I considered good. So I started really shooting. I really got into it. And it took off from there.
Sometimes for money, in addition to these construction and handyman jobs, I made music videos. I did one for Sonic Youth, which got a lot of airplay. But the one that got the most attention was “Detachable Penis,” because Beavis and Butthead talked about it on their show. Then I started getting more jobs.
Anybody who’s ever done music videos, they’ll tell you that it’s a lot of work. And just like in fashion, unless you’re way up there at the top, you’re not making much money. The best paying one I got—and it still wasn’t good pay—was Marilyn Manson’s “Lunchbox.” That was right when he broke big.
At the same time, this friend of mine was the editor of Hustler called and said, “Hey, I know you shoot naked women. We’re starting this magazine called Barely Legal. Can you send us some photos, because we want girls that look like real girls.” At the time, it was like fake breasts and big blond hair and everything.
I sent them some photos and he paid me two grand for 10 photos. Back then, that was a considerable amount of money compared to working construction. He said, “If you’ve got other stuff, or if you want to shoot stuff, go right ahead.” So I just went off on this tangent, shooting for all these sex magazines for maybe five years. It was the golden age of that stuff, where I could work maybe a week out of the month and then have plenty of money to do the other stuff I wanted to do.
At the end of the time I was shooting for Barely Legal, I was using colored gels. This was really popular in rock photography at that time. I was shooting naked women and trying to make these arty looking photographs.
My dream back in the ‘70s was to have a pot farm.
At that time, there had been zero nude photography books for like 20 years. It was the time of Reagan. Jesse Helms was in the senate. And they were saying, “The arts are paying for things like this” and showing Robert Mapplethorpe, showing David Von Rohr’s work. It was that whole era of the moral majority and it was pretty bleak. But then Benedikt Taschen published this book of nude photos by Eric Kroll, and Kroll told Taschen about me.
People were dying for this kind of stuff. It was like putting a cup of water out in the desert. They were hugely successful so he paid really well. Taschen is the best publisher I’ve ever worked with. Still is to this day. He’s really loyal.
I got out of the porn biz, because, for one thing, it was going nowhere. I had a pretty good gallery career going but some of the galleries were like, “Dude, you’re turning into a pornographer. We can’t show porn.” So that also made me step back. And then the internet started up and that just killed the porn book business.
I shot this woman in South Carolina, I guess back in 1999. She was 19 and her ambition was to own a head shop. It was fascinating to me that this young woman had the same ambitions I had back in the ‘70s. My dream back in the ‘70s was to have a pot farm. Like an indoor pot farm. That was my big dream. And that was her ambition, too.
Her whole life revolved around getting stoned. So I started shooting her smoking pot, and she had some little pot plants in her closet. This is going to sound super sexist, but there’s something about a woman getting stoned that is just really, really sensual. This comes from when I was a teenager and we were getting stoned and then we’d have sex. It’s like a nostalgia thing for me. I thought, Wow, it’d be so cool to just have a whole book of that. I also knew that potheads—people that read your magazine—would be perfectly content to sit around looking at photos of naked or almost naked girls smoking pot.
That became Contact High. The book was hugely successful. I've just published a sequel of sorts to it called Extra High. It’s more like a zine; it’s really tiny, but it’s a nice size and it only costs $10. I still have loads more photographs, and I imagine sometime down the road I will put them all together in one complete edition.
The thing to do used to be to get really stoned and go to 42nd Street and watch slasher movies. My son, who’s like a skater kid and who just recently started smoking pot at 21, he talks about the same stuff. How it’s really cool to watch this when you’re stoned. Unfortunately, I have to tell him, “Okay, how much are you smoking? You’ve really got to keep a handle on that because you have the addiction gene, and it can go other places.”
I don’t work with anybody except this gallery in Switzerland now. I pretty much dropped out of that scene. Nobody wants to take a chance on an old white guy who shoots women or shot young women—that’s just not going to fly these days, which is fine. I totally understand. So, I pretty much pulled out of that biz.
The way it is with most galleries, your value to them is based strictly on how much you sell.
The way it is with most galleries, your value to them is based strictly on how much you sell. It has nothing to do with what kind of work you make or anything or what your work means or if it’s socially responsible or any of that crap. It only has to do with if you sell. That’s the bottom line. They’re not interested beyond that. They might like your work, but if it doesn’t sell, they could care less about you.
I had smoke going up my ass from these galleries that I really respected and then they’d do a show and if they didn’t sell stuff, boy, you’d get the cold shoulder like you wouldn’t believe. It’s just amazing.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Richard Kern photographed by Meredith Jenks at his home in New York. If you like this Conversation, please feel free to share it with friends or enemies. Subscribe to our newsletter here.