Friday, May 29, 2015


Richard Kern, Toronto, April 2,1988

THIS WAS THE LAST PHOTO SHOOT I DID FOR NERVE MAGAZINE. I posed Richard Kern in front of the cinema screen on the stage in the backroom at the Rivoli, placed my flash in an umbrella just behind my right shoulder and shot a couple of rolls with my Mamiya C330. My friend Tim had done the interview with Kern, just after a screening of his short films, including Fingered, which showed me more of Lydia Lunch than I was probably prepared to see at that point.

I was rather proud of the results. Even the slight blur - the result of opening the shutter long enough to let some of the ambient stage light bleed into the frame - was actually intentional this time, an effect I hoped would give an uneasy edge to a rather simple, formally composed shot. One of these frames was made into a halftone and laid out on the flats with Tim's story, but that issue of Nerve never hit the presses, and this is the first time anyone has seen these shots.

Kern was famous - infamous, probably - for a series of films starring luminaries of the American pre-grunge indie scene doing violent, often unspeakable things with each other. He was a favorite of bands like Sonic Youth and Pussy Galore, who either appeared in his films or used his photos on their record sleeves. Kern directed the video for Sonic Youth's "Death Valley '69."

He was, as far as I can tell, mostly an arty, conceptual pornographer. In the intervening years the arty and conceptual bits have mostly diminished and he's become a straight up pornographer that specializes in the sort of young women who can be cast out of any major city with a college or two and enough clubs to sustain a music scene. This has less to do with Kern changing what he does than pornography getting better at targeting its audiences, and that school of "sex-positive" feminism that's conditionally rehabilitated slightly arty porn.

Richard Kern, Toronto, April 2,1988

We were a morbid little subculture back in the '80s. The lionization of the cultural "dark shit" from the post-Beat era had lingered long enough to find avid fans in at least part of Generation X, and bookshelves I'd peruse at parties and band houses often contained the usual smattering of Burroughs, Selby and Jim Thompson novels, peppered with Harry Crews, J.G. Ballard and Kathy Acker for the more committed. (I would end up shooting portraits of four of these six writers.)

We liked to make a big show of believing the worst about authority figures, starting with Reagan and Thatcher and moving all the way down to priests, teachers, bus drivers and the local BIA. It was hardly a brave new roster of targets, but we loved to have it confirmed, and our favorite bands were happy to contribute to the theatrical cynicism.

Big Black's "Jordan, Minnesota" was about a small town where two dozen adults had been arrested as part of an organized ring of child abuse and murder - part of a rash of similar, wildly lurid cases of satanic child abuse networks in small towns and preschools that hit the headlines in the late '80s, the most famous of which was the McMartin Preschool case. They turned out to be almost wholly false - a classic example of a witch hunt encouraged by zealous prosecutors and an overeager media, but plea bargains led to convictions and innocent people served years, even decades, in jail despite their cases being revealed as hoaxes long ago.

I'm not sure if Steve Albini from Big Black has ever apologized for "Jordan, Minnesota," but there was something dismal and lazy about our assumption that these stories were true, mostly because they confirmed our worst - and most cherished - fantasies. In retrospect it made a lot of us seem a lot less intelligent - and certainly a lot more gullible - than we thought we were.

Richard Kern, Toronto, April 2, 1988

It would take a few years for this to become clear, and when I look back at the Nerve years, I wonder if my critical faculties might have been sharpened with something more like skepticism and less like mere cynicism. In any case, my time at Nerve - really barely three years - has come to contain the most vivid memories of being young. Which isn't to say that I was left more mature after the paper folded as much as Nerve provided me with a time, a place, the a group of people with whom I could make the sort of breakthroughs - and mistakes - that youth only lets you make once or twice.

I probably didn't know that Nerve was over when I took this shot. Dave carried around the flats for this issue of the paper for months, trying to get together the money to pay for the printers after he and Nancy had broken up and she'd moved on. Tim and I were proud of our work on the Kern piece, but by the summer of '88 we knew it would never come out, and I found myself without a venue or a place that let me learn so much, so fast. It was really like the college graduation I'd never had.

I have a few odds and ends from the Nerve years left to scan, but this is the effective end of my record of that period in my career. The next year or two would be a lot more insecure, as I had to step up as a freelancer, with an odd roster of clients like Graffiti, the Village Voice, Guitar World, the Financial Times and Toronto Life Fashion. At the end of it all was my first work for NOW magazine, the client that would dominate my career for nearly the whole of the '90s.

I was bitter about Nerve for quite a few years after it was over, mostly because it was my school and my soapbox and my first taste of an audience and a bit of local fame. I hate endings, and Nerve's rather abrupt end felt unfair. Now I feel nothing but gratitude for getting such a rare chance to develop what even I didn't imagine as a talent, in public, and with such an inspiring group of people. I wish every anxious young person with a camera could have their own Nerve, and I feel sorry for those who don't.


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