New York

Richard Kern

Feature Inc.

Before becoming known as a photographer, Richard Kern was a director of short “death-punk” films, pioneering a post-Warholian B-porn aesthetic that made itself at home on Sonic Youth album covers and in East Village basement screening rooms at a time when it was still possible to call such production “underground.” In the meantime, Kern’s photographs have been widely published in books and magazines as various as Purple and Barely Legal. Kern does porn, art, and fashion photography, sometimes all in one day, but his singularity does not reside in this crossover potential so much as in the way he strips this multi-tasking down to its hollow core, and in how he elaborates his peculiar distance from the labor he performs whenever he aims his camera at a model.

The nine photographs at Feature, Inc. all operate within the tried-and-true codes of pornographic voyeurism. Kern’s lens peeps through windows and half-open doors to capture glimpses up his models’ skirts or down their blouses, locating panties or nipples. Blurry foreground elements such as doorknobs, potted plants, and window glare eroticize the simultaneous proximity and remoteness of the unseen photographer. It’s hard to say whether Kern is referencing “amateur teen” and “up-skirt” porn genres, or if these images were actually taken on the job. I prefer to think that we are looking at up-skirt porn that is referencing itself, that Kern and his female models are conspiring to open up a pose within the pose, sneaking an illicit art moment on the porn clock. This new pose and the gaze it plays for may not look immediately different from those of pornography—the model, photographer, and decor are certainly all the same—but the image seems to tear itself away from its initial context, establishing a new territory for itself here in a photograph like Woman undresses (Chicago), 2004. These are stolen moments, captured on negatives the artist chose to withhold from his editor.

Unlike Terry Richardson, whose work seems fully invested in the dream of making commercial fashion transgressive or trangression fashionable, Kern doesn’t pretend that image culture is a nonstop party. And unlike Ryan McGinley, whose photographs document a dream of youth freely exposing itself in moments as innocent as nature, Kern exposes the economics and artifice of every situation. Those photographers make work seem like play, whereas Kern plays at working. The crucial difference, and it’s always sensible in his strangely uptight images, is that a Kern moment is aware of its own nonbelonging as either play or work time. In Office (NYC), 2004, a model posing as an office worker seemingly caught unaware as she squats to retrieve a document conspires with Kern to reappropriate the pornographic situation, coolly reproducing it in an image that is closer to the sensibility of Pierre Klossowski than the snapshot neo-realism of wild-boy lifestyle photography.

We see nothing, really, in Upskirt 1, 2003, but the pale blue dead-end of the model’s panties. We see a hobbyist’s attention to form and detail and an image that doesn’t bother to break the rules of the genre its title so straightforwardly names. We see Kern showing himself seeing everything and nothing, and his model readily agreeing to show it. A Kern image seems to start from the boredom of looking at a world already photographed, then finds its discrete distance from this boredom and this world. Kern captures nothing but some young, blank flesh, a moment slipped into panties and carefully, soberly returned to its own opacity. There is no simulated joy in this moment, only the joy of simulating it.

John Kelsey