Terry Richardson takes the heat
If you weren’t familiar with photographer Terry Richardson’s work a couple weeks ago, you may be familiar with his oeuvre now. In recent days, the female blogosphere has taken up arms against the bad boy photog whose routinely racy shots regularly feature nude women, Richardson in various states of undress, and fashion orgies. That the one-time outsider photographer has risen to such heights as shooting for Vogue and creating ad campaigns for Gucci is a testament to how enamored our culture is with erotic imagery. Of course, the higher the profile the more likely you are to get shot down, and a stream of complaints from models who’ve worked with Richardson have posited him as a pervert who victimizes and exploits young models. In reality, the truth may be more complex.
In an interview with the UK Times, model Abbey Lee Kershaw defended appearing nude in a quasi-orgy pictorial of naked models including herself that was shot by Richardson for Purple magazine. “Terry doesn’t force girls to do anything they don’t want to,” the 22-year old explained. “He puts you in a G-string in a pile of mud because you want to do it. You touch yourself because you want to.” Not long after, model Rie Rasmussen, who has been photographed by Richardson, stepped forward to beg to differ, telling the New York Post, “He takes girls who are young, manipulates them to take their clothes off and takes pictures of them they will be ashamed of.” According to Rasmussen, the models are too young and naive to say no. She confronted Richardson at a party, informing him: “I hope you know you only [bleep] girls because you have a camera, lots of fashion contacts and get your pictures in Vogue.” On the heels of their encounter, Rasmussen claims, Richardson fled the scene.
Soon after, the Richardson bashing began. At The Gloss, “Wait, DOES Terry Richardson’s Work Exploit Women?” was followed by “Terry Richardson Is Really Creepy: One Model’s Story,” written by Jamie Peck, a young woman who describes herself thusly: “I’m not a model, just a vain girl with nice tits who likes to pose for the occasional cheesecake photo.” In the post, she recounts her experiences posing for Richardson at 19. She met Richardson at a party hosted by Suicide Girls, the alt-fetish website, where she posed for him and was invited to shoot with him again. On their second meeting, she got naked, he asked her to call him Uncle Terry, and that was that. It was the third time that things got “weird.” Apparently, Richardson requested to play with her tampon, took off his clothes, and requested she take pictures of him. She obliged him. In the story’s, er, climax, Richardson requests a handjob, and Peck … obliges him. That done, his assistant hands her a towel. If Richardson was so “creepy,” why’d she do it? “The only explanation I can come up with is that he was so darn friendly and happy about it all, and his assistants were so stoked on it as well, that I didn’t want to be the killjoy in the room.” Afterward, she says, “I felt bad about it.” Richardson promised her a print she never collected. “If you’re reading this, Terry,” Peck concludes, “and want to prove you really are a nice guy after all, I’m over it now and wouldn’t mind collecting that print.”
Subsequently, Jezebel reposted a series of anti-Terry testimonials. The mother lode included anonymous fashion tipsters who crowed that Richardson’s “power” in the industry meant editors and bookers looked the other way while wide-eyed, naive models were exploited and defiled in the name of haute-couture. They also heard from “a woman who is friends with a stylist who used to work with Richardson.” Another woman suggested we should be looking at the fact that Richardson does not take a lot of pictures of black women. In addition, there were stories from young women who had either posed naked or almost posed naked or engaged in sex acts with Richardson in front of a camera, and now they were sorry. Based on these emails, Jezebel decreed Richardson a “predator,” a pedophile, and a “creep.” And, as it turned out, Richardson’s so-called victims weren’t even victims of Richardson. They were victims of the patriarchy. “Given the power differential that exists between Richardson, who is old, wealthy, regarded as an artist, and vastly influential, and most of his model subjects,” Jezebel declared, “can the consent of these women even be said to be freely given?”
I asked a friend of mine, photographer Clayton Cubitt, who has been photographed by and worked with Richardson and whose work, on occasion, trades in similarly erotic subject matter, what his take was on the matter, especially this last idea, that men photographing women who are nude is inherently problematic. “This is an infantilizing view of women and their sexual power that I find to be repulsive,” Cubitt wrote in an email. “So who is allowed to photograph young women in a sexual manner? Only other poor young women?” He wondered: “Likewise, can First World journalists photograph Third World subjects, or is that inherently victimization and exploitation as well?” (You can read more of Cubitt’s take on the matter here.)
Since, model Noot Sneear has spoken out in defense of Richardson. “It’s not like he pressures you into doing anything you’re not comfortable with,” she told New York magazine. “There’s something very beautiful, very raw about it and I’m glad that there is a photographer out there that does work like that.” Richardson posted a short statement on his blog: “I just want to take a moment to say I’m really hurt by the recent and false allegations of insensitivity and misconduct.” He noted, “I’ve always been considerate and respectful of the people I photograph and I view what I do as a real collaboration between myself and the people in front of the camera.”
In an interview, Richardson once said, “It’s not who you know, it’s who you blow.” That this sentiment is sometimes true is what people seem to have a problem with. I’ve been familiar with Richardson’s work long enough to no longer recall when I first saw it. It is what it is. It is sexual, provocative, and charged. But it’s also possible that Richardson has become the scapegoat for a generation of young women who can’t quite make up their minds about their own sexuality. Am I sexually empowered … or a slut? That Richardson was there to chronicle the young woman in flux, unsure whether to act on her erotic impulses, by, say, posing naked, or repress them, doesn’t make him the bad guy; although, it does, it seems, make him their fall guy.