At the turn of the millennium, I found myself packing lightly for an eight day assignment for Men’s Health magazine. The commission was to produce a photographic reportage on the health benefits of naturism. I was excited. I was nervous. Would I get an unwanted, you know? Would the residents, you know, be bigger? Arriving at the Desert Shadows nudist resort in Palm Springs, California, I knocked on the door of the apartment I was to share with the writer Benjamin Mee (on whose life, the 2011 film, We Bought a Zoo, is based). I’d never met Benjamin before: “Hello, I’m Peter Dench,” I said, eyes flicking to his satisfyingly covered groin. “Hello, I’m Benjamin Mee.” We immediately established a strict clothes must be worn inside the apartment rule, and a strict, clothes must not be worn outside of the apartment rule, and set off to work, giddy at the prospect of a week probing the world of the naked and nearly naked. On the sixth day, Benjamin and I had had enough, and crept out of the resort and in to the local town bars in search of nipple against cloth and bum bulging denim. The daily role call of nakedness at Desert Shadows had sedated our libido.
It’s with a similar feeling of reprieve, that I reach page 278 of the Taschen book publishing title, Shot by Kern, by Richard Kern. “Would you like to review the new book by Richard Kern for Hungry Eye magazine?” I had been asked. “Yes I would” I replied. I’d not heard of Richard Kern, and idly tapped his name into Google. I ought to have first cleared the room of my family. If you like photographs of pretty girls (I do), you should have heard of Richard Kern. If you like photographs of pretty girls in underpants (I do do), then you should definitely have heard of Richard Kern.
I immediately put in a request with the Taschen publishing relations manager to spend a day accompanying Kern on a shoot, to witness first hand the motivation of the man behind the lens; this was not possible. “How about an in person interview?” He wasn’t due in the UK any time soon. “How about a telephone or Skype chat?” Nope. A list of sample questions were requested. Kern would then make a decision on whether to reveal his answers personally.
According to his Wikipedia page, Kern is: ‘A New York underground filmmaker, writer and photographer. He first came to underground prominence as part of the underground cultural explosion in the East Village of New York City in the 1980s, with erotic and experimental films featuring underground personalities of the time.’
Sample question number one to Richard Kern. “Do you still consider yourself, and your work, underground?”
The book I ordered from Amazon arrived in a large brown box. As a result of ordering the book from Amazon, Peter Dench’s featured recommendations, along with children’s books and moth traps, now includes books by Helmut Newton, Nan Goldin, Guy Bourdin and Pussy Girls: Totally Unshaven & Natural Bushes by Walter Bosque. Making sure, this time, the apartment is clear of family, friends, the vulnerable, the easily offended and infirm, I run a scalpel down the packing tape and open. Two fresh faced girls peek out from the water along with a single unblinking nipple. I slide my hand across the wipeable cover and flip the girls over. On the reverse, two girls in knickers and bra play with another girls head hair. The wraparound cover can be fingered off, so I do, revealing an up-skirt shot of a girl wearing a blue dress and no panties. Her glistening labia is pressed firmly into the books spine. Delicately lifting back the front cover, the first image of the book is the books' author, a 50-something Kern is pictured lying on a tiled floor, holding a reflector and looking up between a girls legs.
What follows is turned after turned page of photographs of naked or semi-naked girls*. Girls brush their teeth. Girls brush each others teeth. Girls lie on the floor wearing knickers. Girls lie on the floor without wearing knickers. They lie on the stairs, on tables and stand on their heads. There are girls in the shower, in the bath and naked in the snow. There are girls on the toilet, on the bed and on all fours. There are girls holding bowls of fruit, one holds a guitar, another holds a condom. One girl reads a book, one puts clothes in a washing machine, two girls put their head in the oven. There’s a sequence of girls holding prescription medicine and another of girls with their own personal technology. Girls kiss, they yawn, they cry. Two run together topless on the beach, others squat alone in the wood. Girls in knickers smoke pot. Girls in knickers jump up and down. Girls wearing knickers bend over looking back through their legs and girls with no knickers on bend over looking back through their legs. One girls does yoga, another has a cup of tea. There’s a girl with a thermometer stuck up her ass and one stuck in her mouth, she looks well. Then page 278, the reprieve; two fully clothed girls hold hands, one swigs alcohol from a bottle. I breathlessly mirror her act.
The girls in Shot by Kern are freshly scrubbed and the style of photography is refreshingly natural. The photographs deliver in detail colour pants of all shades and sheer. Girls flow across the pages with red hair, brown hair, blonde hair and black hair, but only one or two has determinatively black skin. The 300 or so images in the book were shot by Kern over seven years, the result of traveling extensively across Europe via Canada, Mexico and the United States in search of real girls in real settings. That’s a lot of girls. They say as a man, you get into photography for two reasons; because you’re in to cameras and kit, or you’re in to women.
Sample question number two to Richard Kern. “Are you in to cameras and kit?”
You get a DVD with the book. It’s glued rather haphazardly in cheap tight plastic to the inside of the back cover. I think they’ve missed a trick not having it hung behind a soft, stretched fine denier sheath that you can rip open. The innocuous looking DVD, edited by Kern and G. Blackshire, featuring original music by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, the band with whom Kern has had an association with since the 1980’s, is a little disappointing. The expectations roused by the Adult Viewing Only warning, then the THIS DVD CONTAINS ADULT CONTENT WARNING, then the FBI Warning, aren’t appeased. It’s basically an animated version of the book. I’d prefer a best of the Benny Hill TV show compilation DVD. The end of DVD Extra, is five minutes of white gloop, one must assume is soap, being liberally squirted on girls that they then rub over their nubile form. For the climax Extra Extra, a girl in the Czech Republic does some star jumps in her white knickers with her knockers out.
The Shot by Kern collection of 25 minute videos at Vice are more advisable viewing. Videos where the girls have a voice, share anecdotes and show attitude, and where Kern, explains in a low level matter of fact manner, what is required on the shoots and what inspires his desire to continue taking these type of photographs.
Sample question number three to Richard Kern. “You turn 60 next year, will you stop photographing girls in pants?”
I think I already know the answer. It’s not surprising Kern wants sample questions before exerting his energy answering them, he’s a busy man. Perhaps he thinks he’s been asked them all before and is bored of having to answer them. Perhaps I’m completely wrong.
Kern’s photographs are more innocent than insulting and more underwear than underground. They echo an age before the sate-any-appetite eruption of the internet, an age of innocence when Kern was just a boy. They prick the urge for a return to purity, when the simple act of a girl with her breasts out, and her head in the oven, is enough to titillate the retina.
I stick back the DVD, pull up a chair, and thrust the 23.5cm x 31cm x 3cm book onto the top shelf where it rests beside another banished-from-family-fingers Taschen titan; America Swings by Naomi Harris (not the actress). Shot by Kern, with an introduction by Jesse Pearson, was first published on my 41st birthday. It’s a book I would have liked to have photographed as a young man, and a book I would have liked to have viewed as an adolescent.
*Disclaimer - At the time of writing, all the girls mentioned in this review are understood to be aged 18 years or over. Probably.
A version of this feature first appeared in Issue 12 Volume I of Hungry Eye available to buy here