As influential as he is divisive, Terry Richardson has become something of a household name these days — a pop-cultural development that many are deeply uncomfortable with.
Whether you love him or loathe him, there’s little getting away from the fact that Terry has helped change the face of modern fashion photography, largely through his much-imitated “snapshot” style of shooting. Throughout his career he has worked with some of the world’s most famous brands, luxurious publications and high-profile celebrities.
Yet, although he has enjoyed mainstream success for over two decades, the explicit nature of his work continues to brand him a pariah of sorts, and has led to myriad allegations of behavioral misconduct that he continues to deny to this day. Whether you find “Uncle Terry” a creepy, sex-obsessed voyeur or someone who simply likes to toy with the public perception of what is deemed acceptable, there is no doubting his overbearing influence in the industry.
In the second part of our Know Your Photographers series, charting the lives and careers of major fashion photographers, we explore the life and work of Terry Richardson.
Born in New York in 1965, Richardson spent the majority of his early life in Paris, as his father was as a photographer for French Vogue. On returning to New York in 1969, Richardson’s parents divorced after his father had an affair with the then 17-year-old model (now celebrated actress), Anjelica Huston. Tired of city life, his mother, Norma, decided to relocate to Woodstock to be around more like-minded people.
Here Richardson was exposed to celebrity, as the small community they moved to was a hub for traveling musicians, including Keith Richards and Bob Dylan. “I remember Jimi Hendrix coming over and I also remember seeing my mom making out with Kris Kristofferson on the fire escape," Richardson would later recall. Norma grew bored of this new lifestyle, and after a brief stint in London, the family moved to California in 1974 where she landed several successful photography jobs with Playboy and Rolling Stone.
Two years later Norma was involved in a near fatal traffic accident that left her in a coma. “When she came home, she was in diapers," said Richardson. “It was very heavy. By the time I was 11, I was getting high every day on weed — just checking out, basically. It also made me very attracted to very dysfunctional, fucked-up people." This had a profound effect upon Richardson. His unusual world-view that came from this traumatic episode would go on to form the early visual language of his photography.
The Start of a Career
Richardson’s interest in photography began when his mother gave him a snapshot camera at the age of 17. He got his first break with Vibe in 1994 with a shoot that followed a group of teenagers on a night out in New York. This work had a raw, documentarian feel to it that laid down the aesthetic blueprints he would follow for much of his early career.
Further work for Arena, The Face and i-D continued this stylistic approach that managed to capture in visceral detail the lives of his subjects. His method was the antithesis of the glamorous shoots that characterized fashion photography in the 1990s, as it was edgy, gritty and didn’t center around conventional ideas of beauty.
He shot his first advertising campaign for British fashion designer Katharine Hamnett in 1995 with the resulting images focused around young couples in various states of embrace. Two years later he worked for Vogue for the first time, shooting actress Milla Jovovich for the cover of their Brazilian edition. During this period Richardson married model Nikki Uberti, but the couple divorced three years later, shortly after Uberti was diagnosed with breast cancer.
The Move Into Fashion Advertising
In 2001, Richardson secured his first big job with a premier fashion house when he was asked by Tom Ford to shoot Gucci’s fall campaign. The stark images he produced were reminiscent of his ’90s work and his snapshot approach was a marked departure from previous Gucci campaigns. They had been shot by the likes of Mario Testino and Steven Klein and exuded luxury and glamour.
Shortly after Gucci, Richardson created one of his most infamous campaigns with Parisian label Sisley. The farmyard themed shoot had model Josie Maran spraying the milk from an udder of a cow into her mouth. The images gained a ton of publicity and helped establish Richardson as a provocative photographer who was prepared to take risks with his subject matter.
Despite this early success, Richardson was a heavy heroin user and he dropped into a spiral of depression later that year after his then-girlfriend left him three days before Christmas. As Benjamin Wallace recalled for New York Magazine, “Richardson put on a suit and tie, consumed $100 worth of heroin, swallowed a handful of Valium, and finished a bottle of vodka. He was found by his friends comatose in his apartment.”
After getting clean, Richardson’s career began to take off. He worked for a diverse range of clients that included YSL, H&M, Mercedes Benz, Dolce & Gabbana, Mango, Levi’s, Jimmy Choo and Nike. His prodigious work rate saw him shoot for Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and GQ, with his versatility, trademark look and strong eye for composition pushing his day rate up to a reported $160,000.
Richardson and Tom Ford were once again reunited in 2007 when the designer launched his first fragrance, "For Men." The resulting campaign stands out amongst Richardson’s portfolio for its use of highly sexualized — borderline obscene — imagery. For the first time that notorious white background is present, and this shoot was to be the start of a noticeable a shift in style that saw Terry adopt a more polished look in his work.
Remaining Culturally Relevant
While shooting for luxury brands and glossy magazines made Richardson a big name within the fashion industry, he gained further recognition by working with musicians, celebrities and smaller labels. This allowed his photography to be viewed by a whole new audience, one that wouldn’t normally be flicking through the latest issue of Vogue.
He shot many memorable campaigns for Supreme, and his portraiture work reads like a who’s who of popular culture. He has been a long-standing collaborator with Lady Gaga and his association with Miley Cyrus saw him direct the video to "Wrecking Ball." Even Obama sat for Richardson at a special shoot at the White House — a move many were highly critical of, given Terry’s at times checkered personal reputation.
As Richardson’s professional career gathered momentum, his personal work began to explore sexual themes in much greater depth. Through book releases and gallery shows, he pushed at the boundaries of acceptability, gaining criticism and notoriety in equal measure. As he explained to the Huffington Post, “Like Robert Mapplethorpe, Helmut Newton, and so many others before me, sexual imagery has always been a part of my photography."
He told the Observer Magazine that he had a side project running for years entitled Breaking in the Carpet, which was “hundreds of images of me just coming on different rugs in different hotel rooms.” His book, Terryworld, is littered with images of sex, nudity and drinking. Notable photographs tucked away in the pages include a model inserting a banana into her vagina, a man urinating into his own mouth and a penis (presumably Richardson’s) in a baguette.
In one shot, model Alexandra Bolotow (now his long-term girlfriend with whom he is expecting a child) can be seen giving him oral sex from a rubbish bin with the word "slut" written on her forehead. Richardson’s reasoning for publishing such graphic photos? “I was a shy kid, and now I'm this powerful guy with his boner, dominating all these girls."
While many agree with British model Dunja Knezevic, who famously branded his work “pornography passed off as high fashion” and called for an industry-wide boycott of his services, others, such as fellow agent provocateur Helmut Newton, see things differently. In an interview with Index Magazine, Newton said of Richardson: “I can see what he’s after. Some time ago I thought what he did was shocking for shocking’s sake. I find that sort of thing a little bit boring. But now I can see he’s got a certain handwriting that comes through."
A Wave of Allegation
The last few years of Richardson’s career have been somewhat overshadowed by allegations of sexual misconduct. In 2010 he was confronted at Paris Fashion Week by Danish model Rie Rasmussen who accused Richardson of abusing his power within the fashion industry to harass young women. “I told him what you do is completely degrading to women, I hope you know you only fuck girls because you have a camera, lots of fashion contacts and get your pictures in Vogue.”
Model Jamie Peck posted an account on The Gloss of a shoot with Richardson in 2004 where he asked her to remove her underwear, play with her tampon and then give him a handjob. In 2005, Romanian model Gabriela Johansson sued Richardson for breach of contract, fraud and invasion of privacy. Johansson alleged that she was asked by Richardson to pose nude in return for further modeling work. She declined and was asked to leave the casting session. Photos of her were later published on Richardson’s site and in an exhibition entitled "Beautiful Losers: Contemporary Art and Street Culture."
Despite calls for fashion brands to boycott Richardson (H&M and Vogue both released statements saying they had no further plans to work with him), the years after these allegations surfaced have, bizarrely, been some of his most fruitful. In 2015 alone he worked with Harper’s Bazaar, Rolling Stone, the Italian and French editions of Vogue and GQ. Fashion brands also seemingly have no qualms about hiring him, as he has secured big contracts with Valentino and Carolina Herrera in recent seasons.
Richardson’s ability to work with the biggest brands, publications and celebrities of our time has made him one of the most revered photographers of his generation. He boasts a hugely impressive professional portfolio, and has continually challenged the acceptable perception of sex and profanity in the media (although your opinion of that will likely depend on how comfortable you are with deviance as an artistic concept in itself).
Despite accusations of being cliché, his work has an undeniable fingerprint to it — one that he popularized almost single-handedly, spawning countless imitators eager to piggyback on his own infamy. Whether that pioneering position excuses his personal conduct, however, is entirely a subjective matter.
Still, regardless of your opinion of Richardson, there is absolutely no denying one fact: there is only one Uncle Terry.
Check back next month for a fresh installment of Know Your Photographers.