“Has the acrobat called yet?” Geof Kern asks. “He needs to be here at three.” Work is a circus these days for the Dallas photographer, whose elegant, ectopic images have made him Texas’ most successful commercial artist—up to a point. He has won a Grammy (for the cover image of Suzanne Vega’s album Days of Open Hand ) as well as every award extant in the world of design. His surrealistic studies have been hung in England and hailed in Germany. One photo-stock company in Japan even plans to market a line of watches, T-shirts, and other products imprinted with his startling graphics—“The Geof Kern superstore,” he dubs it wryly.
Yet although Kern is famous the world over, he’s barely known at home. “My stuff is not exactly traditional,” he shrugs, explaining his local anonymity. That’s true enough: Cowboys, cacti, and other predictable motifs never appear in Kern’s work. His icons are more likely to take the form of dismembered mannequins or anthropomorphized kitchenware. Still, plain vanilla assignments such as Dallas cocktail parties and annual meetings got Kern started in the late seventies (in one memorable job, he chronicled the digging of the Loews Anatole Hotel pit). Some quality in his shots caught the attention of Fred Woodward, then art director of D magazine, and D. J. Stout, then senior art director at Robert A. Wilson Associates, a corporate communications firm. Kern’s work for them signaled a departure. Woodward, who moved on to Texas Monthly and is now the art director of Rolling Stone, wanted him for fashion shots (“At the time, the only interesting photography you saw,” Kern says); Stout, who is Texas Monthly’s current art director, was looking for someone to enliven traditionally ho-hum corporate assignments (“Portraits of Trammell Crow, Harold Farb, people like that”). Dallas was blossoming as a design center, and Kern’s business boomed. Eventually he exhausted the local possibilities—“Shooting for Neiman’s,” he says, “was as far as I could go.” But by that time he had made a name for himself in New York and beyond. He hasn’t had to rely on local jobs since.
Kern works his wiles just northwest of downtown Dallas, in a pedestrian little building that he gutted and remodeled to suit his needs. Inside, the concrete ¤oor and bare white walls seem typical of a photo studio, but not so the miscellaneous paraphernalia strewn about: a doll’s head, a starfish, a giant hourglass, a bisected globe. A huge prop closet contains more curiosities, such as old pomade tins and packs of Camel cigarettes, fishing lures and fans, corrugated boxes labeled “baby/tiny silverware,” “1/2 baseball,” “clock parts.” A pristine kitchen goes unused except for brewing pots of superstrong coffee; Kern doesn’t do food. In contrast, the adjacent darkroom and rear workshop are constantly in use. Kern does all his own printing, as well as the carpentry and other physical crafting required to execute his “photo boxes” and similar visual concepts. For example, in one large-format shot for Forstmann and Company, a textile manufacturer, drawers full of fabric appear to emerge from a model’s head; Kern measured, cut, glued, and fitted his materials to produce the final effect.
On this particular morning Kern, who employs only one assistant, has assembled half a dozen freelancers to help him create an alfresco shot for a London advertising agency. One is his wife and stylist, Debra, whom he considers a collaborator. The image, as Kern visualizes it, involves a sixteen-foot-tall stack of books crowned with a man doing a handstand (hence the acrobat). Simultaneously, he is preparing an anniversary ad for Bloomingdale’s, revving up for an IBM Europe campaign, shooting a fashion spread for the New York Times Magazine, working on illustrations for Nike’s annual report, finishing the Forstmann job, and juggling three other projects as well.
Phones ring, helpers hover, a delivery truck arrives with huge boxes of framed prints from a recently closed New York exhibit. Through all of this, the wiry, Mephistophelian Kern seems unfazed. A Brooklyn native, he got his first hands-on experience with cameras and crises during a two-year Navy stint in Vietnam, where his duties included documenting war damage. Once home, he earned a bachelor’s degree in photography—“To make a living,” he says—and ended up in Dallas when a friend’s father-in-law offered him a job in 1977 doing commercial work. He spent the next decade doing a brisk local business.
Then, in 1987, a spread in Texas Monthly of work by fashion design students broke Kern into the New York market. John Jay, Bloomingdale’s creative director, saw the hand-tinted photographs and tapped him for a proposed ad in W, an important fashion industry publication. That job became a milestone: Kern’s image of a mannequin whose face is a bouquet of roses piqued commercial interest by not depicting any actual merchandise. Kern’s out-of-state business skyrocketed, and in a most timely manner; the Texas economy had begun to falter, and local commissions were falling off. Today, about half of Kern’s work originates overseas. He estimates that only one assignment per year comes from Texas companies—partly because they can’t meet his hefty commercial day rate. His editorial work yields less money but more prestige and has appeared in magazines ranging from Esquire and Spy to Time and Newsweek.
Besieged with requests, Kern could easily keep busy around the clock, but he declines to work weekends or stay late more than twice a week, so he can spend time with Debra and their three preschoolers at home in suburban North Dallas. Whereas art directors once labeled him difficult, they now regard as idiosyncratic his refusal to update his equipment (he uses an elderly Hasselblad and Calumet) or to repeat himself. Inevitably, new clients approach him with raves about a past image, wanting to adapt it for their particular needs, and Kern’s first creative challenge is to talk the prospect out of the preconception. “I don’t just shoot something; I have to develop a philosophical approach,” Kern says. “My refrain is always, ‘Okay. Now for something completely different.’ ”