There’s photographer Terry Richardson on the main page of his Web site, mugging with Barack Obama. And there he is again, over at PatrickMcMullan.com, sitting front row at Calvin Klein. Or maybe you caught him on the streets of New York recently, zooming around on his bicycle in one of his trademark flannel shirts, his big round glasses resting above his handlebar moustache as he sped around your corner.
At this point, he’s practically impossible to miss, as much a part of the city as Al Sharpton’s hair or Gray’s Papaya hot dogs.
And over the last week or so, you could see him splayed across New York’s most famous gossip column as well, as Page Six ran items in which models told stories about how he exploited them and pressured them into having sexual relations with him during photo shoots.
Says one friend: “He’s Mr. Friendly. He’ll photograph his dick and anyone else’s.”
It could be a major shock: one of the magazine world’s most influential photographers, having gotten it on with numerous subjects.
But it wasn’t, first because everyone in fashion knows Terry Richardson, 44, messes around with the girls he photographs, and second because they know it directly from Terry.
For more than a decade, he’s been a high-profile pervy Zelig, documenting his sexual exploits in photo books like Terryworld and in gallery shows at places like Deitch Projects.
That’s in addition to the album covers he’s shot for Justin Timberlake, advertising campaigns he’s done for Tom Ford—one involving a bottle of perfume in front of a model’s nether region—Carolina Herrera, and Miuccia Prada, and magazines that frequently request his services. They presently include GQ, Vogue, Interview, Vice, and The New York Times Magazine.
Virtually everyone who knows Richardson’s name can tell you about the brightly lit, porno-like quality of his pictures, the enormous size of his penis, and his apparent admiration for nearly any celebrity who’s got a reputation in the tabloids. He’s also willing to get naked with seemingly anyone, male or female, a characteristic that appears to be less an indicator of bisexuality than a savvy way of increasing his fan base. (Says one friend: “He’s Mr. Friendly. He’ll photograph his dick and anyone else’s.”)
If you like his work, you might argue that he has captured the current era of fame better than any other photographer of his generation, a Helmut Newton for the reality-show era. If you don’t like his work, it’s because he’s a symptom of that time, a Johnny Knoxville with a camera. (The Jackass star, incidentally, has been a frequent subject of Richardson’s.)
This month, Interview magazine ran a Richardson spread with the cast of the MTV reality show Jersey Shore, pumping iron. (Richardson joined them in several photos.)
Another Richardson spread, for GQ, had Lindsay Lohan sitting in the Chateau Marmont amid a pile of her own press clippings.
Years ago, I did a profile of Richardson for Women’s Wear Daily, and instead of sending over a headshot, someone in his office mistakenly messengered me naked pictures of Richardson with the designer Thom Browne. In one shot, Richardson had on a Thom Browne jacket and no pants or underpants. In the other, the roles were reversed.
“You can’t scare him. You can’t scandalize him,” Tom Ford told me back then. “He’s my favorite photographer to work with.”
Adds Anne Christensen, the fashion director of The New York Times Magazine: “He imagines scenarios and plays them out to the hundredth degree. He’s a funny person, he’s fun to talk to, and he’s allowed himself to be creative and to think of funny scenarios he wants to see enacted.” (She breaks out laughing as she says this.)
Richardson declined to comment for this article.
If fear isn’t something Richardson’s terribly hamstrung by, that may be because he’s been a part of the fashion world for nearly his entire life.
In the ’60s, his father, Bob, was one of the most influential photographers in fashion, working with legendary stylists Polly Mellen and Joan Juliet Buck for magazines like Harper’s Bazaar and French Vogue. His mother, Annie, had worked as a stylist.
In 1969, the Richardsons’ marriage broke up and Bob fell for a 17-year-old Anjelica Huston, with whom he lived with for a time at the Chelsea Hotel. (Dad at the time was in his early 40s.)
A few years later, schizophrenia and drug addiction drove Bob off the rails. (His dealer was none other than Max “Dr. Feelgood” Jacobson, who is also said to have “worked” for Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Deitrich, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, John F. Kennedy, and Judy Garland.)
In the early ’90s, at the beginning of his career, Terry partnered up with his father. The two men lived together in a rundown studio in the East Village, scraping by on money they earned doing small sittings for Interview and Allure. When Terry decided to go out on his own, Bob responded, “You can’t do it without me. I’ll never speak to you again.”
For a little while, it seemed he might be right about Terry’s future prospects. Back then, Bruce Weber and Herb Ritts were the two photographers designers generally turned to when they wanted images that were sexually charged, and both presented erotic encounters in dreamlike black and white scenarios, a fantasy world with perfectly sculpted bodies and no hint of AIDS.
Richardson, whose photos seemed to pierce the fantasy of the fashion world by suggesting its illusions weren’t real, was far too edgy for American magazines. Further, he was struggling at the time with drugs.
Nevertheless, he began getting work with influential British magazines like ID and The Face. He scored an ad campaign with denim designer Katharine Hamnett. Then Sisley, Benetton’s hipper line, tapped him to shoot its campaigns. After that came Gucci.
In a 2001 profile of Richardson in New York magazine, Doug Lloyd, the art director behind Gucci’s campaigns, explained, “We wanted a rawer energy and more sex appeal and that’s what you find in Terry’s work.”
Slowly but surely, the times caught up with Richardson as reality shows and magazines like Us Weekly altered the landscape of fame and changed the way people viewed celebrity. American Apparel became the era’s go-to place for basics and ran one ad campaign after another that seemed to be ripped off of Richardson’s work. As for the reporter who profiled Richardson for New York, she disrobed as he went snap, snap, snap.
By the time Richardson put out put out his coffee table book, Terryworld, in 2004, he had kicked his heroin addiction, but the scenarios in the book revealed a world that was as wild as ever.
In addition to photographs of some of his favorite celebrities, the book offered a shot of Batman and Robin getting it on, as well as hundreds of pictures involving the author in various compromising situations with pretty young things. In a delicious profile in The New York Observer, Richardson said, "A lot of it starts with me saying to a girl, 'Do you want to do nudes?' And they're like, 'I don't want to be naked.' So I say, ' I'll be naked and you take the pictures. You can have the camera. You can have the phallus...And since I'm in so many of the pictures, aren't I objectifying myself a bit?"
This may be why so few people in fashion can muster any outrage as the New York Post embarks on a search for the women who got naked for Richardson and now claim not to have wanted to.
His first accuser, Rie Rasmussen, gave an interview in 2007 in which she said she was ashamed to be a woman because girl characters in movies are too “bippity bippity,” professed her hatred for the entire fashion world (“a bunch of crybabies”), and said she only shot a Victoria’s Secret campaign because she wanted “to fuck a supermodel.” (Rasmussen is openly bisexual.) “And I did,” she added.
Says one person who’s worked with Richardson: “It’s just impossible for me to see him as a sexual predator. What he does is completely out in the open.”
Adds another fashion world insider: “This is an industry filled with crazy people and big personalities. The boundaries are different than they are in a purely corporate enterprise. It’s not IBM, it’s a business with beautiful girls, sex, and malfeasance. To single out one person as some sort of ringleader is absurd. We traffic in women’s bodies.”
Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. Previously, he was a features writer at WWD and W Magazine. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.