Last week, word got out that New York magazine was working on a cover story about Terry Richardson. This wasn’t remarkable news in and of itself, given that Richardson is rarely out of the headlines these days, but the word on the street (or, at least, the Gawker network) was that the story was pro-Richardson, allegedly setting out to absolve the photographer of all the accusations against him. As it turns out, the story doesn’t go quite that far, but it does provide a startlingly sympathetic portrait of a man who’s basically toxic these days. As an insight into Terryworld, it’s a fascinating read. As a piece of journalism dealing with the allegations against Richardson… well, not so much.
Reporters don’t write headlines, but the one that runs with this article seems apt: “Is Terry Richardson an Artist or a Predator?” It’s a curious question, because it’s a false binary: one doesn’t preclude the other, and over the years it’s become increasingly clear that Richardson is certainly the former and may well be the latter. In seeking to decide between one and the other, the piece’s author, Benjamin Wallace, is on a hiding to nothing, and while he does a lot of talking about the well-documented accusations against Richardson, he doesn’t do much to further our understanding of them.
But then, perhaps he feels he doesn’t have to, because the general slant of this piece seems to be that Richardson is a man more sinned against than sinning. And look, I don’t know Terry Richardson. Maybe the guy is 100% innocent, and maybe his feeling that he “finds himself maligned as repugnant for being the same person who was once broadly celebrated” is justified. Maybe, despite all the evidence to the contrary, he really is just a misunderstood dude with a big dick and silly glasses.
This profile isn’t going to help you decide either way, though. As a profile of who Richardson is and why he’s done what he’s done, it’s a rather impressive piece of work. But Wallace’s handling of the accusations that Richardson has crossed the line between risqué and abusive… well, it’s cursory, at best. The allegations are set out in a way that suggests they’re very much open to question — fair to an extent, perhaps, given that they’ve never been proved. But we’ve heard so many iterations of the same story that it’s hard to believe it’s just Terry being misunderstood, no matter whether he thinks that’s the case or not.
Richardson’s own voice, and those of his sympathizers, are really all we hear in this piece, though. Notably, the voices of those who have spoken out against Richardson are presented only in a way that undermines their claims. Jamie Peck, who wrote the article that initially sparked controversy about Richardson (and has also contributed to Flavorwire), told me that she spent an hour on the phone to Wallace — but she gets only one short quote about how she features in Richardson’s book Kibosh with different haircuts, apparently contradicting her recollection of having only posed for sexually explicit photos once. Charlotte Waters, meanwhile, gets even less: all we hear is that she apparently described herself as a “19-year-old pervert” when approaching Richardson, and now says this was “a poor choice of words.”
I’ll be honest here: when I first read these passages, the first thing I thought of was how sexual assault victims are picked at in court. You described yourself as a ‘pervert’ — you must be up for it, right? You said you only posed for Richardson once, but you did it TWICE, so everything else you have to say is magically invalidated, because consent once means consent forever, right? And so on.
To heighten this sense, Peck’s and Waters’ quotes are followed directly by one from Richardson’s longtime assistant (who’s also allegedly his girlfriend — although the piece neglects to mention this), Alex Bolatow, who says loftily, “I think part of being a strong woman is owning the decisions that you’ve made in your life… Trying to put the onus onto someone else for your own decisions is really cowardly and kind of dishonest.” There’s a clear implication here, and it’s not a particularly edifying one for New York or for Wallace.
Despite the relatively short shrift it gives the accusations against Richardson, though, the first impression you get from this piece is one of astonishment that it took as long as it did for allegations to surface. Looking through the “I Miss the Old Terry” Tumblr, which Wallace cites in his article, is like a trip to the sort of porn website you’d want to expunge from your browser history afterward — click at your own risk, unless seeing Terry Richardson get lots of blowjobs is your kinda thing, in which case knock yourself out. (The image where he sticks his dick in the face of a decidedly unimpressed poodle is particularly memorable.)
“Richardson,” Wallace observes at one point, “has had a lot of psychotherapy.” The other abiding impression you get from this piece is that he needs a whole lot more. Admittedly, much of the material about Richardson’s childhood and his self-discovery as an artist is fascinating stuff, and certainly gives an insight into why Terry might be the way he is: self-obsessed hippie parents, chaotic upbringing, painful shyness, whopping great drug habit by his early teens, etc. The impression is that Richardson’s sexual weirdness is a product of his upbringing, and that his art is an attempt to make sense of both — it’s notable that his sexual awakening coincided with his emergence as an artist.
This may well be true, but, well, so what? There are plenty of people who have had spectacularly fucked-up childhoods. There have also been many fine artists who’ve made sexually explicit work. Neither of these things are a license to do shit that would have you or I thrown in jail.
Whether Richardson himself realizes this, or understands the finer points of consent, or cares… all these things remain very much open to question. The key observation, I think, of Wallace’s profile comes not from the writer himself, but from an unnamed “former close friend,” who suggests that “[Richardson] has so many blind spots… He has extremely strong and smart instincts, but he doesn’t have a terrifically sophisticated way of analyzing his own work.”
I’m not going to gainsay someone who knows Richardson well here — I mean, shit, I’ve never met the guy — but nevertheless, this seems disingenuous. If he doesn’t get it, he needs someone around him who does, because the fact remains that he’s photographing himself with his dick in the face of countless young girls. It doesn’t really matter what he thinks that means, or whether he understands its implications, or why people react to it the way they do. Ultimately, the way he sees what he does isn’t really the point here — it’s the way the people who’ve ended up with his semen all over their faces see it.
Because, the thing is, we’re not talking about a man taking explicit photos here. As I’ve argued before, what Richardson is doing in his work isn’t inherently wrong — people who criticize Richardson’s photos purely on the basis of their explicit nature are missing the point. It’s notable, though, that those who denounce Richardson generally don’t like his art, while those who defend him do. You rarely hear anyone saying, “Man, Terry Richardson’s such a great photographer, it’s a shame he’s such a terrible person.”
The quality of Richardson’s art is beside the point. Throughout history, societies have been notably willing to indulge the whims of those it deems to be worthy artists, from the catankerous to the thoroughly unpleasant to the downright criminal. To an extent, this comes back to the good old question of art/artist separation. But, as I’ve also argued before, Richardson’s life and his art are so intertwined that it’s impossible to separate them.
It may well be, as Wallace’s article narrates, that the sort of 1960s fashion shoots that Richardson’s father and many others conducted ended up as big ol’ orgies — but no one ever made the orgies into the work itself. Even someone like, say, Larry Clark, whose photos in Tulsa certainly walked the line of both legality and ethics, never placed himself in the frame — literally and metaphorically — as much Richardson does.
And so, we return the fact that we’re talking about consent and exploitation, about a man coercing young women into situations they find threatening, and/or to do things they might be reluctant to do, or simply just don’t want to do. Richardson is a grown man in a position of power, and the accusation is that he has exploited this power to, in his own words, become “a powerful guy with his boner, dominating all these girls.” Sure, it’s perversely fascinating to know why this might be. But ultimately, the only really important question is how to stop it.