Between Darkness and Wonder


For more than three decades Richard Kern has sought to reveal and illuminate the complex and often dark sides of human nature. With his new photographic project POLAROIDS Kern makes the psychological space between the subject, the photographer and the audience his greatest interest.

Underground photographer and filmmaker Richard Kern first shot a naked girl in the early 1980s. “By now, breasts have lost their novelty,” is the phrase he most often says in his interviews, while “Let’s take off those clothes. Our minutes are numbered,” is instead what she might utter during her frequent photo shoots. Today, at 58 years old, Kern is not interested in making what could be classified as pornography, but rather intends to create a provocative, sexy, grotesque and refined art product that will strike a chord with viewers. Growing up in North Carolina, his father, a newspaper editor, often took him on photo shoots. After graduating from UNC, he moved to New York City in 1979. He thus began first to photograph and then to experiment with film. Kern’s practice differs in its dry, matter-of-fact approach, consistently emphasizing the absurdity of truth and objectivity in photography and playing with the addictiveness of sexual representation.

“A photograph for me is successful when it looks a little seedy, it has to have something that bothers the viewer and makes him feel like there is something in the image that makes him uncomfortable.”

– Richard Kern

The new publication POLAROIDS contains more than 200 images taken during his various projects over the past 35 years. The project sees Richard Kern’s models pose before his lens in ways that most people experience only with their intimate partners, the color photographs achieve in Kern a righteous transcendence of sensuality. The photographer treads the underground waters that periodically flow between art and sexuality: his images simultaneously convey the feeling of privacy and intimacy, an element that is difficult to formalize in a shot. In front of these beautiful works, there is a feeling of invasion of someone else’s private life, almost of embarrassment. Art has always been littered with material for the male gaze, as John Currin’s explicit paintings have also shown in recent years, but in the case of photographer Richard Kern, we are offered something more direct: his photographic gaze is something we co-construct with him, it is something that is also realized through the viewer’s third eye.

Models accept the challenge of the artist’s camera and perform in front of it, resolutely inviting viewers to stare at them, contorting their bodies and revealing their secrets, clearly aware of their desirable and controversial effect. Kern is often mislabeled as “erotic”, but POLAROIDS challenges the boundaries of this very notion, demonstrating through archival materials how the photographer’s uniform narrative leads to a wonder-darkness of human desire. Kern’s polaroids are, in fact, very vital and paint a nuanced portrait of American marginal culture, full of desire, wonder, darkness and kinship. The new project investigates sensual faces and bodies that in static poses, or in intimate positions, openly and provocatively reveal their freedoms and inclinations.

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