A unifying thread weaves through the work of ‘trangressive’ filmmaker and photographer Richard Kern. In this interview with his collaborator Supervert (Who’s Your Death Hero?), Kern describes that theme as “things just aren’t as good as they seem.” The kindred pair discuss Kern’s new book of photographs, Medicated (Art Paper Editions), for which he asked models to be photographed with the prescription drugs that they take—and, as it develops, rely upon to survive. The photographs, as Supervert notes, ‘hold up a mirror to our self-doubts. Are we unwell? Mad? Madder than any other generation on earth? Why do we think we’re so crazy?’

The first model in Richard Kern’s new book, Medicated, stands facing the camera. She is naked except for sheer panties, but her nakedness is only the first thing you notice about her. Once you get used to it, your eye moves to the pill bottles — three in one hand, two in the other.

You take in the rest of the photograph — the confrontational gaze, the bathroom setting, the mishmash of products on the sink, the mirror that reflects neither the model nor the photographer — then your gaze comes back to the prescription labels. You squint. You wonder if you can make out a name. You realize that the bottles, though similar to each other, have five different sets of instructions:

Take one capsule by mouth every six hours as needed for anxiety… Take one to two capsules by mouth every night at bedtime… Take one tablet by mouth three times daily… Take one tablet by mouth one time daily… Take one half tablet in the AM and then one tab at bedtime.

Holy shit, you think. She takes all those pills every day?

The moment I laid eyes on Medicated, a photographic series and documentary video featuring models posing with their prescription medications, I knew that Kern was on to something. It reminded me of a social gathering some years ago. There were ten of us in the room. I’d never been on a prescription other than an antibiotic and I knew that the person with me was clean as spring water. A man who later went on to have a psychotic break enthused about the Adderall he had just started taking. He was so gleeful about it that others confessed to the medications they were on. Antidepressants, antipsychotics, anticonvulsants, amphetamines, attention-deficit drugs, sleeping pills — the drugs formed their own weird alphabet running from Adderall to Zoloft.

One woman remained silent during the conversation — ironically, I thought, since she was prone to public displays of tears and appeared to be the member of the group in greatest need of a way to regulate her emotions. Everyone else was on something. In a random sampling of New Yorkers, seven of ten were taking pills.

It is this upsurge of pharmaceutical usage that Kern documents with clinical precision, not to mention perverse beauty, in his new book published by Art Paper Editions. Each photograph in Medicated features a female model holding a prescription bottle or a blister pack with rows of pastel-colored pills. Without makeup, the models pose in bathrooms (psych meds) and bedrooms (birth control pills). Their eyes stare at the camera lens from expressionless faces.

Kern interviewed the models about their drug usage and the transcript is printed opposite the pictures. The photos don’t have captions with identifying details and the transcript runs out of sync with the images so the viewer doesn’t know which voice aligns with which model. (The video on Kern’s website does show a few of the model interviews.)

Watch the video here: http://www.richardkern.com/dt-films/

Kern refers to the pictures as “portraits with pills” but the combined effect is more a portrait of the phenomenon of pills. To judge from the quantity of them, we must be having a panic attack the size of North America. It used to be that we dealt with bad moods and feelings of despair through psychoanalysis or alcohol. Now we go to the pharmacy armed with doctor’s orders. There’s a myth that an artist or poet has to be a madman but, with his clear-eyed presentation of this pervasive drug use, Richard Kern may well be the sanest guy in town.

I asked Kern via Zoom at what point he realized so many people were taking medications.

“I was really not familiar with the whole world of prescription meds,” he admits. “I’d heard of Adderall but at the time I quit drugs you didn’t really go to the doctor to get tranquilizers. That was a mom thing, ‘mother’s little helper.’ Around 2010, I was in Toronto and my assistant started talking about this other guy I had hired. She said, ‘Well, he’s a bit schizy when he does too much Adderall.’ I go, ‘Oh, he’s on drugs?’ And she goes, ‘Adderall. I’m on it right now.’ I said, ‘Do a lot of people take this?’ She said, ‘Yeah, it’s a big thing. Half the people I know are on some kind of medication.’ I started thinking, ‘Hmm….’ I was shooting her while I was there and I said, ‘Hey, let me shoot you with those pills.’ I thought, ‘This is a really great idea for a series.'”

The assistant then connected Kern with other models who were taking medications.

“When I shoot,” he explains, “I always have two or three different series I’m working on. Whenever I was talking to a potential model I would say, ‘Are you on any kind of medication? If you are, can you have it available so we can do a couple of shots for the series? Can I interview you?'”

At first glance the models in the series are a homogenous group, female and white, but Kern points out that most of them come from low-income or sometimes immigrant families. He noticed that in Europe models were less likely to be on meds than in the United States and Canada. There is also a self-selection effect because Kern has become known for his photographs of hipster beauties.

“A certain type of person wants to model,” he says. “I just had one write me on Instagram and say, ‘Hey, I’d love to be part of your Medicated series. I’m on medication.'”

In spite of that, the models’ homogeneity aligns with demographic trends in the use and abuse of prescription drugs. Women are twice as likely as men, for example, to be taking something for depression. Kern has no personal experience of antidepressants or attention-deficit medications. Drugs, though, have been a recurrent theme in both his work and his life. His earliest creative acts were zines with titles like Valium Addict and Heroin Addict.

“I was 15 in 1969,” he says. “I couldn’t wait to get my hands on drugs. In my small town, part of being in the counterculture was drugs. That was the way you rebelled. There was no cautionary stuff at that time except for really ridiculous things like that marijuana film Reefer Madness. Drugs definitely had a humongous effect on my life.”

Work and life merged when Kern filmed his friends shooting him up with smack for the first time for an unreleased film titled Zombie Hunger. He developed an addiction and eventually cleaned up but maintained an interest visible in Medicated and in Contact High, his related photographs of models smoking pot. As a recovered addict, Kern was able to see the dangers of the prescriptions his models were taking. Some were plainly dependent.

“While I’m photographing one woman,” Kern recalls, “her pill bottle falls on the floor. She was freaking out about those pills lying there while we’re talking. You can see her eyes darting down at it. She says like, ‘I’m really having a hard time looking at all those pills on the floor. It’s driving me crazy.'”

Other models suffered from drug interactions that no researcher could have ever thought to test. In the Medicated video, a woman describes how she attempted suicide under the influence of several prescriptions which she combined with marijuana and psilocybin.

When she was telling me her story,” Kern says, “I burst out laughing. She said, ‘This is really serious. Why are you laughing?’ I said, ‘Jesus Christ, with all that shit you’re on, no wonder you tried to kill yourself.'” Unfortunately, she did go on to commit suicide not long after.


“While I’m photographing one woman,” Kern recalls, “her pill bottle falls on the floor. She was freaking out about those pills lying there while we’re talking. You can see her eyes darting down at it. She says like, ‘I’m really having a hard time looking at all those pills on the floor. It’s driving me crazy.'”


In the interviews collected in the book, the models describe symptoms of anxiety, inattention, insomnia, hypochondria, self-harm. I ask Kern why he thinks people combat them with prescription medications.

“If you watch the video, it’s obvious,” he says. “It’s a combination of peer pressure and quick fixes on the part of parents or doctors. It has two effects coming from a doctor. One is you’re telling somebody really young that there’s something wrong with them. That’s the first thing the person gets in their head. The next thing is, ‘But this will fix it. It’s OK to take it because I am telling you it’s OK.'” It’s as though we suffer from a lack of other frameworks for processing frustration, depression, self-loathing. Religion used to be the opium of the masses. Now medication has become religion. Popping a pill is easy, like clicking the like button on Instagram. We try to cure our attention-deficit disorder without paying it any real attention.

The models describe how their happy pills become status symbols, as though heroin chic has given way to pharmaceutical chic. One says her prescription “defines who I am.” Each photograph in Medicated hammers home the idea that these women identify with their meds.


Religion used to be the opium of the masses. Now medication has become religion.


A classic technique in the history of portraiture is for the subject to hold an object that tells the viewer about the person — a man holding a gun might be a hunter or soldier, one with a book might be a poet or philosopher. Each model in Medicated holds a package of pills. Her name is reduced to the laser print on a label. Her identity is intertwined with her drug use.

I find it difficult not to read the photos as depictions of a type of violence or control that society inflicts on young people. I point out to Kern that drugs once signified rebellion and counterculture to him. In Medicated, they seem to say something about conformity, people literally being prescribed to.

“I would say that too,” he allows, “but there are people who are doing it without prescriptions. For them, it’s rebellion. There was one woman who was basically prescribing Xanax to herself. She’d go to this guy and he would give her fifty Xanax to have sex with him.”

Aside from drugs, sex is the other recurrent theme in Kern’s films and photographs.

“I ask the models about their sex drives,” he says. “When you’re 20, it’s pretty hard to dampen your sex drive but some of them said it did have that effect.”

I remark that in his first book, New York Girls, the desire in the photographs is palpable. In Medicated, however, the models are not glamorized or eroticized. Their partial states of dress are casual, the humdrum nudity that happens when you’re in the presence of someone you live with.

“I tried to make these photos as blank as possible,” Kern explains. There was a strategic reason for it. “I was always trying to think of ways that I could show the model with little or no clothes on and have it be justifiable. The fact that they were in the bathroom and they were going to take their medication, that could be justified. They would just be in their underwear. It’d be the morning or night. I did a similar thing with photos of models with their birth control pills. I thought I could put those in front of a bed. That’s another place where they could legitimately be undressed.”

The obvious thing to point out is that Kern is an older male shooting images of younger women. But in the course of conversation, he enthuses less about any model than about their bathrooms and the way that bathroom lights became a formal element in the photographs — a reminder that first and foremost these are artworks with intention and aesthetic.

“When I was traveling,” he says, “if I couldn’t shoot a model in her own bathroom or if her bathroom sucked, I’d go on AirBnB looking for a good bathroom. There’s one shot where the tiles are all blue and that was in Paris. The rest of the apartment smelled like dirty laundry but I was like, ‘God, this bathroom is great.'”

He also arranged the clutter visible on sinks and vanities.

“I wanted as much personal stuff as you could have in there,” he explains.

Toothpaste, moisturizers, hair products, acne treatments — they promise that we’ll have clearer skin, mintier breath, longer lashes, and bouncier hair to go along with the calmer dispositions and sharper thoughts promised by the prescription drugs. It all raises a question. Are young people any crazier now than they ever were?

“If I ask someone why they’re taking these drugs,” Kern says, “the feelings they’re going through are the exact same feelings I went through and you went through and everybody else went through. We either had a different way of medicating or it wasn’t a thing to give medication for that kind of stuff.”

As Kern speaks, it occurs to me that the role of a therapist is to listen closely. What Kern does as a photographer is to observe closely. It suggests that the two activities run parallel. Did Kern sometimes feel like a therapist when shooting these photographs?

A number of the models, he states, indicated they were “happy to be able to explain how they felt. They were relieved to have a forum.”

The reaction of viewers is more complex. “If the work is taken out of context, it stands by itself. But put it in the context of everything else I’ve done, it becomes kind of weird. It seems to become exploitation just because it’s my audience looking at it. But I’ve had people write and say, ‘Man, I’ve been on drugs since I was 14. This is so great. I so identified with it.’ I guess it’s not all bad.”

It’s tempting to moralize about Medicated — but that’s one thing that makes the photographs so great. They hold up a mirror to our self-doubts. Are we unwell? Mad? Madder than any other generation on earth? Why do we think we’re so crazy? Is it any better or worse to soothe ourselves with pills than with booze or compulsive sex or interminable therapy or mindless entertainment?

I feel indignant when I think about the poor woman who went on to kill herself, as though society forced her hand. But then I happen to recognize another model in the book, someone who has gone on to success and renown. If it’s tempting to blame drugs for the one who came to a sad end, why not credit them for the one who has done well?

Kern resists moralizing about it.

“I think the drugs become an accelerant of whatever kind of personality they have,” he offers, describing personal details that suggest the drugs didn’t fundamentally change the doomed model or the successful one. They just hurried them along their respective paths.

If you’ve followed Kern’s work over the course of the years — from the early days when he was making the best of the Cinema of Transgression films to the present when he is better known for his photography — you might catch sight of a thread running through the entirety of it. The psychopathologies that Lydia Lunch acted out in his early films… Kembra Pfahler having the lips of her vagina sewn shut in Sewing Circle… the self-harming woman in Cutter… the sexual psychodramas and repetition compulsions on display in his photographs… the new work collected in Medicated… It all seems to document mental pain, the postures we adopt to embody it, the behaviors we use to exorcise it.

“There’s definitely that thread,” Kern allows, “even with the other stuff I take photos of, like damaged cars. What’s a good word for it? Decay. Things just aren’t as good as they seem. It’s not Hollywood out there.”

He pauses to reflect then describes how Medicated sums up everything for him.

“To me, Medicated ticks all the boxes. It’s honest and it’s non-judgmental. It’s perverse. It has both beauty and ugliness at the same time in the same photos.”

Find out more about Kern/Supervert’s collaboration: Who’s Your Death Hero?,

To order Medicated, visit Richard Kern’s website:

https://richard-kern.squarespace.com/books-1/medicated

 

http://www.pleasekillme.com

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