"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
“There are enough pretty photographs in the world of naked women,” Richard Kern says.
Right. The last thing you’d call Kern’s nudes is “pretty.” When Kern (who is in his 40s) was a kid growing up in North Carolina, his father took photographs for a local newspaper and would bring the boy with him to car wrecks and drownings. The son eventually captured images of naked girls in much the same way. Some chicks are hanging by their necks or upside down, and often metal bars force their legs apart. Yet these girls don’t look like victims or masochists. Against all odds, they’re in change of something that perhaps only Charlie Manson could ever understand.
Then there are Kern’s angry girls wearing dildos and clutching handguns. (The only time a Kern girl looks coy is when she’s photographed sitting on a toilet.) Kern’s first book, “New York Girls,” should have been called “The Chicks of Alphabet City.” Those photos were all taken in apartments between Avenues A, B, C and D, where Kern was scuttling among the junkies and homeless during the late 1970s and 1980s. During those days, Kern shot post-punk sex/slasher flicks in super-8 film while taking photos of street scenes and girls.
One night he experienced a different kind of shooting — shooting heroin with Courtney Love. After she passed out, he took her picture as well. But Courtney hasn’t shot smack on Avenue A for years. Neither has Kern. Alphabet City is so gentrified it’s hard to even find a basement cockfight anymore. These are the days when Kern’s transgressive photos of chicks are published as highbrow art books like his new “Kern Noir.” They also appear in weird lowbrow skin magazines with trailer-trash titles like Jugs.
I live just a few blocks from Kern in this so-called East Village, but he won’t do an in-person interview. You have to hit star-82 when you telephone him and his machine screens all calls. Kern seems a little paranoid, but why shouldn’t he be? Strange Jersey babes still hound him to photograph them hog-tied and naked. And Kern has a kid. Kern lives with the kid’s mother, a woman he still refers to as “my girlfriend.” Kern’s voice is a little nerdy — although published photos of him show a thin, trendy, stark guy with haunted Richard Kimball eyes. I like Kern.
His new book, “Kern Noir,” is a retrospective of his career told in black and white. Most of that long-ago pseudo-punk Alphabet City culture is forgettable and stupid. Yet the greater the distance from those days, the stronger Kern’s work gets. The danger he photographs seems real, innocent and corrupting.
My first question is, how do you talk a girl into posing for a photograph with a lit candle sticking out of her vagina?
[Laughs.] That was a long time ago. The first one was a girl with a candle in her butt. She was someone I was hanging around with. It wasn’t like a big deal for her to do it. The other ones, I don’t know, I just — [Pause] I had to work with a model the other day and ask her what she did. I just showed her a bunch of photos and said, “Would you do this? Would you do this? Would you do this? How do you feel about this?” Once I get a good idea, I just take it from there. Whatever she said she would do, that is what I’m going to get her to do to the max.
Are all those girls New York girls?
A few. They were all shot in New York. It was mainly just their attitude. I get emails all the time: “I live in New Jersey and I’m going to be in town. I live in Cleveland and I’m coming to see the show.” They’re all coming over for kicks.
What’s your story? How did you get started?
I did super-8 stuff. I was doing fanzines in the late ’70s. They were little stories. I hate to call it literature. Concrete poetry. Photos. Cartoons. All kinds of shit. I put them out for free. After that I was doing the photos. A couple of photos in the beginning of “Kern Noir” are from those days — some cops pushing a guy around. There was a photo of a dog at night. Neo-surreal stuff. It was the kind of photography that was popular at the time.
Are you self-taught?
Yeah. I took one light course — it was a weekend course. I had taken a film course in college, but I dropped out after about three classes. It was unbelievably dull, the technical part. Then I learned it myself.
How did “New York Girls” come about?
Taschen [a publisher] approached me. It seemed like a good hook. But a year went by and nothing. Then a British magazine publisher approached me and I did it with them. Taschen came back and bought it from them and put it out again.
I’ve read interviews where you’ve said that a lot of these girls were girlfriends or friends.
A few were models — fashion models — but I don’t think they were having any success. I mean they would get work, but not a lot. I don’t know how this fashion stuff works. I’ve been doing a lot of it lately and I can’t tell if these girls get work, or they’re just trying to get work, or how it works.
Were you making the bulk of your living from skin magazines?
From ’95 on, yeah. I would say it was 60 percent of my income.
Did you have to delete your aesthetic for them?
You adapt to different magazines and it becomes a business like anything else. Some of the magazines wanted more of a glamour look and some of them wanted more of an amateur look. “Kern Noir” has some black-and-white outtakes where I would just shoot with my toy camera in between the color shots from both those kinds of shoots. I had my aesthetic. You have to adapt to whatever they need.
Did a skin magazine ever say, “These aren’t sexy enough” or “These are too weird”?
I had that from a few shoots, but mostly when I would shoot for this magazine, Jugs. They said I made the stories too funny. “They’re not supposed to be funny. They’re supposed to be sexy.” I understand that now, but at the time I didn’t. Considering the women they were asking me to shoot, it was hard not to make it funny. I had to shoot a mother and daughter “Slut of the Year.” The mother won — she was about 60 and had beat out all the 19-year-old girls. Her daughter wanted to shoot with her mother also. The magazine said, “Make it sexy.” But how do I tell this mother and daughter who both weigh 300 pounds, “Be sexy”? So I had them eating popcorn. Sitting back — big giant popcorn bowls sitting on their big giant tits, that kind of stuff. The magazine didn’t think that was funny. The pictures were a little disturbing. [Pause.] I’m not big on shooting the freak show.
What does that mean?
For example, a friend of mine said, “You have to shoot this guy I know. He was burned from head to toe when he was a baby. He’s totally covered in burns.” I was, “I just can’t do it.” Of course, the guy would be interesting for someone to see, but that is exploitation.
Do you know the photographer Eric Kroll?
Not to insult you, but I had it in my head that you were the one who took his nude photos of the one-legged woman.
I might have done it back then, but now I wouldn’t be able to do it. The stuff I shoot now is mostly boy-looking girls. People who look real average.
A magazine article says you’re walking away from porno.
No. I’m not walking away. I just haven’t shot it for a long time.
When you’re doing fashion stuff, do you suddenly have a big crew?
No. [Chuckles.] I have one person, usually. A lot of times models show up with a ton of stuff and a ton of people because the clients think you need all that, but you don’t.
Do you still shoot in your apartment?
I did a month ago, but I hardly ever do it, because I have a kid now. I shoot at people’s houses and offices, wherever I can get someone to let me shoot.
What else do you take pictures of besides women?
The kid. [Laughs.]
Are you still in touch with your models?
Yeah. They’ll call up and say, “I don’t know if you remember me, but I did photos.” I’m thinking, “How could I forget? You came over and took your clothes off and I shot you like ten times. How would I forget that?”
I think you are the first American man who has explored the eroticism of a woman brushing her teeth.
You think I was the first? That would be cool! At least that would be a first in something. This whole interview is worth it just for that. I had a whole series where I have women doing stuff that you wouldn’t normally see. That girl had braces and I went over to just shoot her naked with her braces. I got there and she said, “I don’t want to pose nude now. I’ve changed my mind.” I was like “Goddamn! And you’re going to wear clothes?” So I took her picture brushing her teeth. I saw the shots and that was the best shot. The biggest joke. Because every single person who sees that picture assumes that her mouth is full of cum. It’s a big joke to me that she wouldn’t take off her clothes and instead we have a shot that is ten times more disgusting — or people think it is more disgusting — than if she was naked.
Have you been accused of being misogynistic?
Of course! [Laughs.]
Oh god, what would that be? Hating relationships? Or another version of it where you hate women?
You took your revenge out on the toothpaste girl …
Yeah. I did. It also happened to be the best shot. There has to be some value in a shot. You singled it out yourself. It was a great shot. I have got mad at a person, that’s for sure. But I wasn’t particularly mad at her. She’s probably mad at me. That shot got used for the advertisement for the show. I didn’t pick it. The gallery did. So it was everywhere.
Do you have any limits?
I find myself saying, “You can’t touch that model.” But I don’t censor myself. I’m happy to get as much as possible. I go back to the brushing the teeth stuff — there are enough pretty photographs in the world of naked women. To get something that looks natural and there is something happening, that’s more what I’m into. When you’re shooting for porn magazines, you always want to go as far as possible. In “Model Release” [his second book] there is a shot of a girl laying back in a bed. She has a condom hanging out of her puss. She’s smoking a cigarette. There’s cum on her stomach. It’s a total fake [pause] cum shot. I asked the girl if she’d do it. She was fine with it. That particular model would do anything. There’s a shot of a girl standing on her head with her head in a toilet. And that girl is another one. That is kind of pushing it. [Pause.] I don’t think it’s pushing it.
What’s the farthest you’ve ever pushed it?
It depends what somebody’s definition of “offensive” is. There’s a shot in “Model Release” of a girl picking her nose, and that shot bothers a lot of people. She’s got her clothes on, but she’s picking her nose. My girlfriend works in a photo agency and the photo was on her computer. A woman came in and said, “That’s disgusting. That’s offensive.” [Pause.] I used to hang people upside down and shit. [Pause.] You know what is offensive. I don’t know what offensive is. I don’t want to define anything offensive. Everybody’s rules are always shifting.
Your aesthetic is really Lower East Side circa the late ’70s and early ’80s. Were you aware that culture was happening while you were creating it?
Yes. There used to be 20 galleries here. I’m also part of the new Lower East Side aesthetic. I’m kind of like a yuppie. I’m in the East Village and I have a kid.
I moved to New York in the mid-’70s. If I remember correctly, the East Village didn’t exist. All those blocks east of the Bowery were just called the Lower East Side.
Yeah. I lived on Thompson Street when I first moved here. I had a sublet. Everyone said, “You have to go to the Lower East Side.” I said, “I don’t want to live there. I want to live in SoHo.” Even SoHo then wasn’t like SoHo now. It was all deserted and you could get a loft. I ended up coming over here because I found even bigger places for 300 bucks. My building was a total shooting gallery. It was overrun by drug dealers. The street was lined with burning garbage cans and guys hawking drugs. People got stabbed and shot in my building all the time, but it just seemed normal at the time.
Did they know you were a local and leave you alone?
I got robbed maybe five times. Once somebody was coming to visit me and he yells, “Help! Help!” And I go down and a guy is robbing him with a hammer, yelling, “I’m going to smash his head.” I said, “Look, here’s 20 bucks. Get out of here.”
Where were you when the Tompkins Park riots were going on?
I moved to San Francisco for six months. I moved during that time. I missed the riots.
Do girls come back from the early shots and say, “I can’t have those photographs seen — I’m a married woman and belong to bridge club”?
Yeah. There were people who modeled and bought back the negatives. There was one comedian who got pretty big who I photographed 15 years ago — she came over and jerked off on camera, that was her thing. I never showed those. I have shots of Courtney Love when she was still a junkie and we were doing heroin and she’s passed out in bed with these guys. I could show it in a gallery, but I could never get it printed because I’d get sued.
She didn’t sign a model release form?
Right. Around the time of “New York Girls” I didn’t even know about model release forms. I had to go track the girls down and say, “I’m going to publish this stuff.” And there were a few who wouldn’t sign a release. It was like, “Why don’t you give me this amount of money and then I’ll sign.”
You can show a photo in a gallery without a release?
Yes. If you are exhibiting it as art work.
[Begins flipping through Kern's book.] Wow. I forgot about all those pictures of girls sitting on toilets.
I should be doing more of that.
I just saw a photo show of guys and chicks urinating. Now, I’ve been pissing my entire life and I’ve always assumed piss was a stream, but in a photograph urine becomes a series of squirts.
[Laughs.] This is a much different interview than I’ve done lately. [Laughs some more.] I’ve done a lot of that pissing stuff and I’ve noticed the same thing — it is a big giant drop and not a steady stream.
Is that a lighting issue?
No. I think that’s just the way it is coming out.
So what’s a usual interview?
Talking about art. I have an art show in London coming up. I don’t show the jerkable pictures. In my books there aren’t a lot of photos to jerk off to, you know.
Do you know when you’re shooting that this is gonna be a “jerkable” shot rather than a more aesthetic one?
Yeah. But that’s for porn shoots. Maybe I just have a high threshold. There was a girl I was shooting in L.A. and she had this killer-amazing butt. She was on the bed on all fours crawling away, and I was looking at her from behind. I thought, “This is a killer shot.” I just never got it. That’s just what hits my interest. Every guy, and the women who are into it, have what punches their buttons.
What gender is your kid?
Some day you’ll have to tell him what dad does for a living.
All he has to do is look around the house — it’s all over the walls. I have definite thoughts about that. I don’t know. He’ll discover it in his own way. I’ve heard horror stories, but I don’t think it will be like that at all. There’s a very famous fashion photographer — who is the hottest male fashion photographer right now — whose father was also a fashion photographer who treated his son like shit, and that is the basis of their relationship. If I treat my son good — no matter what you do for a living it doesn’t matter.
Are you friends with any of your peers?
Lots of them. As friendly as you can get when you’re in your 40s and you’re a guy. I was explaining to my girlfriend why I don’t have guys who I can just call up and say, “Let’s hang out.” Guys when they get old don’t do that. It’s just too weird. You hang out with women or something. It has to be business with guys.
Ha! I’m the same way. I thought it was just me.
No. It’s every fucking guy. I’m also in A.A. And that’s another way guys get around it. You have an excuse to hang out with other people because you are going to a “meeting.” The whole A.A. is a social scene for older people.
When did you start?
I think ’87 or ’88.
And how much were you drinking?
It was drugs. East Village remember? [Laughs.]
Oh, right — doing heroin with Courtney Love.
Yeah. I used to be a junkie years ago. And all those photos of girls with candles in their asses, and bondage, that was all immediately after I got off drugs. I was taking photos of girls for kicks. Everyone who kicks drugs knows that it’s really hard to get kicks.
I think I already asked this, but did it ever get too weird with the candles and stuff?
No. It can never get too weird. Hustler sends me out to do stories. They sent me to Nevada to shoot this mother/daughter prostitute team that worked at the Bunny Ranch. They sent me up to Canada to shoot this religious cult that is led by this one old dude who says he was carried up in a spaceship by aliens who taught him to have sex with as many people as possible. So he’s got it set up with all these nudist and free-sex people living up in the middle of nowhere where he gets to fuck all of these beautiful women — who in turn have the “privilege” to fuck him. And then the UFO is going to come and take them to space. [Laughs.] Now I have a very straight life. [Pause.] I live vicariously through my photographs.
David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."More David Bowman.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)