A central figure in the underground East Village arts scene of the 1980s, photographer and filmmaker Richard Kern is something of a patron saint for a new generation who have been inspired (often to the point of imitation) by his bold, sexually-charged images. Last night he opened an exhibition of new photographs at Feature Inc., in New York (including a series, "Medicated, etc.," in which his semi-nude models hold the prescription bottles of the drugs they’re taking), and launched his new book, Contact High, about drugs of a different sort.
The book, published by Picture Box, includes a very specific form of portraiture: portraits of nude or mostly nude girls smoking marijuana, an irresistible combination for the longtime New Yorker and regular contributor to GQ, Vice and Playboy who is widely known for his photographs of naked women.
"Some of my nicest memories from my teenage years in the 1970s were when I would be sitting around somewhere smoking pot with friends," said the native of Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, where he spent a lot of his teen years "outside near water—stoned, naked and listening to music."
"Someone would say, ‘let’s get nekkid and go skinny-dipping!" Kern recalls of his youth. "And to be cool you had to do it."
But smoking pot naked in the 1970s is worlds away from the subject of Kern’s new photo series, "Medicated, etc.," which he admits was a bit of a learning experience for someone who quit drugs and booze a long time ago.
"I can’t say it’s a critique," he said about his images of naked or nearly naked young girls holding their prescription drug bottles. "But I was surprised to find out that many kids and adults are medicated now."
The other works in the exhibition are double exposure portraits of the same girl, with one shot of a clothed female model superimposed on the same girl in the nude. Because of the blurriness, they are a bit difficult to look at and have a strange effect of turning sex appeal into something a bit grotesque.
But he’s not trying to make a major statement about drugs or sex or anything beyond the moment he’s capturing. Even after all these years in New York, he has managed to maintain the relaxed vibe of that stoned, skinny-dipping teenager from North Carolina who loves listening to music with his friends. And that cool kid essence has translated into how he chooses and relates to his models.
"I usually meet the girls I shoot to see if we get along before I shoot," he said. "If there is the slightest bit of hesitation with a model, I back out. Sometimes I like a model but I think she is not working out for me, image-wise, and then years later I come back to her photos or video and sort of fall in love with her and feel like I finally understand her."
We stopped by Feature Inc. last night and asked Richard a few questions about his new work.