The first time I consciously recall identifying a Terry Richardson image was in 2005, when I was a Vice intern, and he had shot the cover of the Sex Issue. The image was unsettling and arresting, with Japanese photographer (and, if the Internet is correct, Richardson's then-girlfriend) Hiromix's face being manipulated by Terry's disembodied hand. Her lips are spread apart, and she looks dreamily into the camera. It was, as the issue promised, incredibly sexually charged.
Last night, New York Magazine dropped its huge, long-form essay hoping to answer, once and for all, the question of Uncle Terry: "Is Terry Richardson An Artist Or A Predator?" The piece, though no hagiography to be sure, doesn't deliver on its promise. It paints a story of a confused, tortured Terry, who has traded one drug (heroin) with another (sex — specifically, domination over women). But, it doesn't answer its own question, and doesn't present any new information, instead resting firmly in the gray area, the camp of wondering whether or not we can decry someone for being a sleazebag.
The piece does give Terry a platform to finally clear the air, to address the allegations that have been leveled against him publicly by women who have worked with him. Here, he fails miserably, sounding clueless, disinterested, and disengaged. He continually blames "the Internet" — which, to him, is simultaneously the voices of feminist blogs like Jezebel that have been documenting women coming out against him, the Tumblrs that reblog and repost his work without context, plus the commenters who rail against him for being a "trashy, talentless" hack. (This site's comments section, for one, has had plenty of the latter.) The article reflects: "Back when Richardson was taking, exhibiting, and publishing his Terryworld and Kibosh pictures, the market of people interested in extreme photography seemed tiny and self-selecting. You didn’t yet assume that any image will be instantaneously transmitted, via Twitter or the Huffington Post, into every single computer-owning human being’s home."
Photo: Getty Images for Vanity Fair.
While an interesting point, and one that suggests that context does matter with Richardson's more explicit, sexually charged images, it begs a very important question: How then, does a photographer who has notably shot women with his ejaculate smeared on their faces, consistently book gigs shooting big-ticket ad campaigns? Or, from another direction, how in the world did Terry, whose own book opens with an image of him flossing his teeth with a still inserted tampon, get to photograph President Obama?
This is one of the major questions that the piece should have addressed, and it didn't. The answer, from inside the industry, is one of complacency. Due to the graphic nature of his shoots and the hedonism that he attempted to capture, he became downtown, early-aughts, Deitch Projects-chic. And then, chic became mainstream, and suddenly, the Old Terry (NSFW) booked Miley, H&M, and Vogue, the latter purporting to be a protectorate of up-and-coming models. The fashion world, and to a larger extent, the advertising/mass-media world, went with Terry because he was, at the time, a very hot photographer — who also has a very dark past.
In fact, the person who most damns Terry in the NY profile is the photographer himself, whose old quotes are tossed back at him. "He’d tell models to call him 'Uncle Terry.' In interviews, he’d say things like 'I was a shy kid, and now I’m this powerful guy with his boner, dominating all these girls.'" And, this is the man that the fashion and advertising world has given a successful, luxurious, jet-set career. Lastly, and most importantly, this is a man who has access to young, fledgling models.
Which is, at the heart, the real problem here. As Terry has come out of the Richard Kern-esque art scene and moved toward "legitimate" media, it doesn't seem like his procedures and professionalism (or "professionalism") have followed suit. And, that doesn't just speak to the issue of Richardson, but to the entire industry at large. True, the NY Mag piece briefly touches upon the difficulty of being a young, emerging model, but it is addressed in two paragraphs at the end of the hefty piece. The idea that a model can merely "say no" or suggest that she isn't comfortable with taking her top off or pleasuring Terry is so much more complicated than desire and communication. There is a larger, more predatory force at play, here.
The piece does suggest, "...he seems either unaware of or unwilling to acknowledge the ways in which coercion can be unspoken and situational. A prominent photography agent identifies the potential for abuse. 'Kate Moss wasn’t asked to grab a hard dick,' this person says. 'Miley Cyrus wasn’t asked to grab a hard dick. H&M models weren’t asked to grab a hard dick. But these other girls, the 19-year-old girl from Whereverville, should be the one to say, ‘I don’t think this is a good idea’? These girls are told by agents how important he is, and then they show up and it’s a bait and switch. This guy and his friends are literally like, ‘Grab my boner.’ Is this girl going to say no? And go back to the village? That’s not a real choice. It’s a false choice.'”
It is a false choice indeed, and one that is pervasive in the modeling industry, where advocacy and protection is hard to find. And, as the piece ends, reflecting almost nostalgically on "the Old Terry," the Uncle Terry who could be a perv in Vice Magazine and no one would mind, no new information is brought to light and accusations aren't cleared up. The fact is, Terry Richardson has displayed disturbing behavior in a professional setting. It is not up to the public to debate its legality or morality, but it is up to the public to start the discussion of advocacy for models, those who don't know they should never sign releases without their agency or representation involved. Readers and voters do have the ability to put pressure on lawmakers and companies to enforce stricter regulations on set and to offer models real, legal recourse for responding to inappropriate conduct.
What this industry needs in order to change isn't just more speculation about Terry and endless, circular discussions about what is or isn't art. What has been alleged against him is unacceptable, that's not up for debate, but this issue is endemic to the industry and goes way beyond these incidents. It is an issue highlighted (and exacerbated) when a sexually suggestive — even predatory — photographer like Terry Richardson moves into the mainstream unchecked. But, the problem of exploitation is not entirely Terry Richardson's doing alone.
Though, he sure as hell isn't helping, either.