For many readers, New York magazine's profile of Terry Richardson this week was deeply unsatisfying. With all the talk of the photographer as "artist," critics said, it was as if his extensive misbehavior had never happened.
Terry Richardson Predator
Terry Richardson was sitting on a couch wearing the get-up that has made him the most physically recognizable photographer working today: widow's peak, friendly muttonchops, oversize black plastic glasses, Converse sneakers, jeans, untucked plaid shirt, necklace with a cross, Star of David, and Narcotics Anonymous medallion. All that was missing was the toothy smile and thumbs-up gesture present in most pictures of him.
He regularly shoots covers for Harper's Bazaar and GQ. He works for luxury brands Valentino and YSL, and mass-market brands Target and H&M, at a reported day rate of $160,000. His portraits have an unmistakable style—shot head-on with a bright flash against a white wall—and an illusion of spontaneity.
Richardson is famous for being a pervert who has, outside his commercial work, produced a series of extremely explicit images—often including himself naked and erect—that many find pornographic and misogynistic, and which can make viewers distinctly uncomfortable. In recent years, a number of the models in those images have indicated that they, too, weren't altogether comfortable, filing lawsuits and, increasingly, speaking up in essays and interviews. Richardson has been called "the world's most fucked up fashion photographer" by the website Jezebel, "fashion's shameful secret" by the Guardian, and "America's Next Top Scumbag" by Wonkette. Baron von Luxxury, a Los Angeles DJ, wrote a song called "Terry Richardson" with the lyrics "She'll have a few more sedatives / I'll have whatever comes next / And then I'll burn the negatives."
Take a stand against him. In October, a British teenager uploaded a petition to Change.org titled "Big brands: Stop using alleged sex offender & pornographic Terry Richardson as your photographer." It has since attracted more than 33,000 signatures. A few days later, in response to a tweeted link to a 2010 article about Richardson, H&M tweeted, "if these accusations are true, it's totally unacceptable to us. Currently we're not working with Terry Richardson."
In March, a model published a graphic account detailing how a session with Richardson turned into "sexual act after sexual act" that were "never once initiated by me." On Twitter he has become radioactive. After Richardson shot Neil Patrick Harris in April for Rolling Stone, and the actor tweeted that it was a "bucket list moment" that had been "so fun," he was immediately assailed by followers ("gross," "Stop supporting sexual predators"). He deleted his tweet. After Lena Dunham was called hypocritical for denouncing R. Kelly while having let Terry Richardson take her picture, she told the Guardian that she was "not in the business of being BFFs with alleged sexual predators."
A reporter for BuzzFeed asked 25 magazines and brands whether they would work with Richardson, and editors at Vogue, T, and W stated that they had "no plans."
Richardson, in his studio, said "People call me a pedophile."
He has famous friends willing to defend him publicly ("You'd find a line down the block to talk about how generous and warm and gracious he is," Jared Leto told me). Others who had supported him are suddenly quiet or guarded. Culturally engaged people, many of them young, reject the sophisticated titillation that once greeted Richardson's work, seeing predation instead of transgression.
His shoots could get wild, and he made no secret of that. In 2002, he told Vice about his forthcoming calendar for street-style brand Supreme, the goal being "to put together a calendar you could jerk off to." The shoot, he revealed, "got a bit out of hand by the end. The woman producing the shoot got freaked out and had to leave. I think every person there fucked someone. It was intense."
Richardson was a heavy heroin user in the '90s. He had a relapse with heroin in 2008.
As Richardson's career accelerated, his personal work became more intensely sexual. He now routinely took off his own clothes during shoots. He increasingly photographed himself, or was photographed by his assistants, in a multitude of explicit scenarios.
Steve-O, a member of the Jackass cast, recalls in his memoir an afternoon when Johnny Knoxville called and said, "Hey, I'm at Terry Richardson's studio. He wants to do a bukkake shoot, and we're just a few cocks short. You game?" Richardson photographed it all. He wanted Steve-O "pulling a girl's hair while I shot a load on her face and someone else pointed a gun at her head."
Professional models weren't all enthused. Sara Ziff was around 19 when her agency sent her to see Richardson. "It was supposed to be for a mainstream fashion magazine, but when I arrived, he unexpectedly asked me to pose topless," she says. "I felt pressured to comply because my agent had told me to make a good impression because he was an important photographer who shot for all the major magazines and brands." Liskula Cohen walked off a 2002 shoot for Vogue Hommes International because Richardson "wanted me to be completely naked and pretend to give this faux husband a blow job."
When Sena Cech, then 19, was sent to see Richardson that same year, she says her agent told her it was "really exciting" that she'd been booked and that she should "just do whatever it takes to get the job." Cech says that at that time, she was unaware of Richardson's more risqué work. When she arrived, she was asked to sign a release, which she did, even though normally her agency would take care of any paperwork. Richardson took off his clothes. "And they wanted me to get naked. And they're like, 'Grab his dick and twist it and squeeze it really hard.' " She laughs. "It wasn't even a hand job. It was maybe not even sexual. Weirdo. And then they were taking pictures the whole time. They were like, 'You're awesome! You're in the club!' " When her agent called her afterward to say Richardson wanted to use her for the assignment, she turned it down. "I was like, 'No way I'm doing the shoot, this guy's too weird.' "
Taschen published Terryworld. Richardson seemed to relish having become what the Village Voice called the "notorious sleaze fashion photographer." 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."
The Italian publisher Damiani brought out a Richardson book called Kibosh. Printed in a limited edition of 2,000, it is a black, clothbound monument to Richardson's penis, which appears in most of the 358 images. A preponderance of the photographs depict Richardson receiving oral sex or ejaculating on a woman's face. He called it "my life's work" and "the summary of my career."
At 18, he was using heroin. After his mother unplugged the TV one time, he threw her across the room. She had him arrested. The same year, after taking downers and drinking a dozen beers, he hit an electric pole at 55 miles per hour, making the local newspaper.
In August 2003, a young Romanian model named Gabriela Johansson was dispatched by her agency, L.A. Models, to the Chateau Marmont, where Richardson was doing a casting session. During the shoot, she took her top off, but when he "pushed aggressively" for her to remove the rest of her clothes, she became "extremely uncomfortable," according to a lawsuit she filed against Richardson in 2005, after a Richardson picture of her surfaced in an art exhibit. Johansson claimed that she'd been tricked into signing a release that had been presented as merely a "sign-in sheet." A similar suit was brought against Richardson the same year, this one by a male model named Frank "Speedy" Lopera, who had appeared fully naked in Terryworld and later claimed he had been misled. Both were quietly settled.
Another model displeased by her appearance in Terryworld was Rie Rasmussen, and in March 2010, she confronted Richardson in a Paris nightclub. "What you do is completely degrading to women," she told him, in an incident that made "Page Six." When an abbreviated reprint of Terryworld came out in 2012, both Rasmussen's and Lopera's photos were absent.
According to someone close to the situation, as many as nine people depicted in the original Terryworld have threatened Richardson with lawsuits since its publication. The actress Juliette Lewis, who'd agreed to allow Richardson to use photos of her in the book, was unhappy when she saw the finished product. "I had no idea my photos would be interspersed alongside graphic pornographic images," says Lewis. "Otherwise I clearly would have said no."
Four days after the "Page Six" report, a writer named Jamie Peck published an account on the Gloss of her experiences with Richardson titled, "Terry Richardson Is Really Creepy: One Model's Story." Calling herself a "vain girl with nice tits who likes to pose for the occasional cheesecake photo," she recounted how in 2004, when she was a 19-year-old student at Columbia, she'd gone to a Williamsburg club where the photographer was casting a Suicide Girls pinup calendar. She'd posed topless there and later gone to his studio to do further modeling. "The first time I went over there was pretty okay," she wrote. He made her tea, and they chatted. "I got naked, danced around a bit, smiled, squeezed my tits together, yada yada."
"The second time was the weird one," she continued. "Uncle Terry was feeling frisky that day!" He asked Peck to take off her underwear. When she demurred, because she had her period, he asked her to remove her tampon, saying, "I love tampons!" Then he got naked and "strongly suggested" she give him a hand job. She did, after which "his assistant handed me a towel." "Of all the fine folks I've frolicked au naturel for, he's the only one who's left me feeling like I needed to take two showers," Peck wrote.
It was after Peck's vividly detailed account that the narrative of Richardson as predator, as opposed to kinky eccentric, gained traction. Tavi Gevinson, 14 at the time, wrote on her website Style Rookie that "the quality of the photos is irrelevant to the fact that he had to sexually harass people to get them." Coco Rocha, whom Richardson had shot for French Vogue, told Fashion magazine, "I've shot with him, but I didn't feel comfortable and I won't do it again."
Until last February, the solicitation for nude models on his website consisted of the word casting and a photo of a hotel-room door marked "69."
The rawest story to newly emerge about Richardson came from Charlotte Waters, who in March posted a graphic, initially anonymous description of her encounter with Richardson on Reddit. It had occurred in 2009, when she was paying her way through art school by working as a nude model. By her account, when she went to Richardson's studio, simple posing quickly progressed to him "licking my ass." Then he "directed me to squeeze his balls as hard as I could … I was completely a sex puppet at this point." She described going into a dissociative state as a female assistant egged them on. "It ended with him jacking off onto my face and he told me to keep my eyes open really wide and his assistant stood over me and it got in my eye and they both began taking pics."
Alex Bolotow, 31, has worked as an assistant to Richardson for much of the past ten years.. There are images of her fellating Richardson from inside a trash can; from inside a suitcase, with him pinching her nose shut; under his desk; upside down; with the word SLUT lipsticked on her forehead; in tandem with another woman; wearing a paper In-N-Out Burger cap.
The raunchiest of Richardson's shoots took place in a professional setting, with other people present—often members of the ad hoc family of friends and colleagues who've surrounded him for years, including Bolotow, a stylist named Leslie Lessin, and studio manager Seth Goldfarb. Lessin has been harshly criticized as Richardson's enabler.
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."
Someone who's spoken with Richardson recalls him describing his feelings. "He said, 'I'm not proud of it.' " In our conversations, Richardson was defensive. "I don't have any regrets… I'm okay with myself about everything."
Richardson showed me a rough edit of a retrospective of his fashion photography and portraiture. Here was Jerry Seinfeld, banana cradled to his ear, for GQ. Richardson laughed. "A banana phone is always funny. C'mon, it's fun. Oh, wow, I'm on the banana phone!"
*This appears in the June 16, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.
[Image scratching by Jim Cooke]