Monday, February 23, 2009

The Voyeur's Gaze

"Show a man a peephole and a second later
he'll have his eye pressed firmly to it"
-- Geoff Nicholson
(author of Food Chain, Footsucker,
Bleeding London

Several months ago, I was visiting San Francisco, and I discovered a terrific little bookshop in the Haight-Ashbury area.

This book, Looker ('08), from filmmaker and "street photographer" Richard Kern, whose films The Evil Cameraman ('90), Fingered ('86), and Goodbye 42nd Street ('86) helped define New York Underground Cinema ("The Cinema of Transgression") in the 80's and early 90's, caught my attention.

Actually, two stunning images caught my attention, and gave me enough reason to shell out $40 immediately.

This one, which is simply stunning...

And this, which is pornographic and innocent at the same time.

Though we know Kern is not breaking laws shooting unwary women semi-clothed, the illusion is strong, nonetheless.

To me, at least, these are very erotic images.

The photographer's personality is very clear in these shots, as opposed to the photographer of commercial art whose subject/product tends to obscure the true nature of his gaze.

The out-of-focus edges of many of Kern's shots, suggesting a closed, private environment being invaded, work as framing devices and familiar elements of voyeurism.

The commonplace settings are extremely effective and totally implicate the viewer.

In a sense, these are like more aesthetically polished exhibits from the "Reader's Wives" genre, first popularized by the British porn industry.

They also possess a potent "paparazzi" vibe.

This shot of the two women kissing, one holding a firearm, harks back to the best of Kern's underground filmmaking and possesses a raw, anarchic power.

Kern makes it all look too easy, but as one who has dabbled in a little erotic filmmaking myself, I can say with some authority that depicting non-hardcore human sexuality in an artful, arousing manner is actually very difficult and frustrating.

As anybody who takes photos of clothed humans can attest, most look pretty unattractive from most angles.

Finding the angle and camera height that works is a challenge. When you have unclothed humans, it's a nightmare.

Kern has clearly mastered the art... and discovered the importance of great subjects.

This frame capture (above) is taken from one of my own films; it's one of the few scenes I like.

I approached it (a lovemaking flashback) with the intention of trying to depict "desire".

Sex has been done to death in films, videos, and in books, so I had no delusions that I was going to show it like it's "never been shown before". Only an idiot would make such a claim.

I just needed something a little more concrete to focus my working method.

As the scene unfolded and as I talked the actresses through each painstaking move, my instinct was to pull back on the graphic aspects and suggest as much as possible.

Did I succeed?

I don't know.

Eroticism is so subjective.

All you can do is draw on what turns you on.

Hopefully, what appeals to you may appeal to others (males, in particular).

The intention behind this shot (below) was to get the audience to picture the woman's exposed vagina as her panties are removed. The camera is always framed above the area, so you don't in fact see anything at all. You imagine it.


Not for me to say.

Here I also used out-of-focus foreground framing to shoot the first sex scene in the film.

And finally this:The result of wanting to get outside and depict lovemaking in a naturalistic way (as "naturalistic" as a film set will allow, at least).

Unlike Kern's book, my film is well worth avoiding.

Richard Kern was born in 1954. He has published ten books.

Looker, from Abrams, includes a fascinating essay, "The Modern Voyeur", by author Geoff Nicholson.


  1. This book looks great. I see that Kern's book is available on Amazon. I'll have to get me a copy of it. I love that cover. I also love those images you posted. I do like how many of them look as if he snapped girls who didn't realize they were being photographed. I think the images you posted from your work are really awesome. Wow! That's awesome that you've done some films yourself. I had no idea when I first came across your blog. I definitely plan to explore your blog more. Oh yeah. Thanks for those comments on my blog. I appreciate it. Feel free to stop by anytime.

  2. Thanks, Keith.

    Kern's work definitely has a very impromptu vibe to it.

    Making films with very strict content limits and rigid structures (8 sex scenes, 1 every 11 minutes, no violence) is not a way to make good films. It's just a living sometimes.