It’s Thursday afternoon in Terry Richardson’s studio on the Bowery in Lower Manhattan: Pantera’s cranking, fashion models parade in and out, and judging by the staff’s nonchalance, one suspects that this is just another day in Richardson’s life, albeit with little of his recent and highly documented adventures in penetration and pearl necklaces. These days, it’s good to be New York’s favorite rail-thin, well-inked photo sniper. Terryworld (Taschen) and the limited-edition Kibosh (Damiani) were both recently released in conjunction with a savagely attended opening at the Zeitgeist-central Deitch Projects in Soho, during which thousands of rabid downtown kids gleefully braved a human stampede and near-inhuman temperatures for a glimpse of Mr. Richardson’s latest photographic foray into a land where the photographer’s own penis acts as a kind of sword/torch guiding him through the sometimes troubling and oftentimes hilarious wilderness of his unrepentant sexual psyche.
Today, however, it’s all about casting for the next Sisley campaign, Richardson’s 14th to date, although, in fact, he’s playing hooky. Rocking his notorious standard-issue nerd glasses and muttonchops, he clowns with his buddy and fellow photographer Kenneth Capello, whom Richardson is shooting for I.D. magazine’s special New York City issue. Watching one of the most sought-after image-makers in fashion and pop culture work is a study in frantic energy. He bops to the pounding metal, bonds with his subject, playfully does whatever he can to coax that one flash that will capture the deeper currents stirring behind the human mask.
Terry Richardson first busted onto the fine-art scene in 1998 with a show at the seminal Alleged Gallery in New York titled “These Colors Don’t Run,” which coincided with the publication of his first book, Hysteric Glamour. “There was a huge, 4-foot-by-6-foot portrait of Terry with cum all over his face, and then in the back there was a shot of a toothbrush jammed in a butt that was blown up to 12 feet by 30 feet,” says Alleged’s erstwhile maestro, Aaron Rose. “The thing about Terry that you have to remember is that he’s got a total Beavis and Butt-head sense of humor. The first time I saw the work, Terry spread like hundreds of 8-inch-by-10-inches out on his kitchen table. Ten years of shooting people being wild on the Lower East Side. I couldn’t believe how vast it all was. Terry creates the ‘kids being bad’ feeling as well as anyone who’s ever mined that particular terrain.”
Like Ed van der Elsken, Larry Clark and Nan Goldin, Richardson is obsessed with creating a body of work that captures the rarefied world inhabited by his peers and cohorts — an ongoing series of intimate but not precious portraits of urban life gone completely amok, the amalgam of which constitutes an impromptu autobiography. Whether it’s sloppy lovers in party costumes French-kissing and slurping at each other’s nipples, heavy metal kids rolling around in the grass, or fun and games at nudist colonies, what separates Richardson from the photographers who have preceded him in this genre is his terminally randy irreverence. Where the others call it quits at “aftermath,” Richardson literally serves up the after-poop, or the jism as it streams across the cheek and breasts. Richardson is forever in search of the outlandish, never wavers when confronted with bad taste, and often quite remarkably manages to convey a sense of joy, exhilaration and sometimes even sheer poetry.
“It’s hard to compare Terry to other current artists because almost everyone working in the same genre is copying him,” says Dian Hanson, Richardson’s editor at Taschen. “Terry is the innovator, the father of fashion-porn/porn-fashion, in perfect step with America’s current ‘reality’ obsession, or rather America’s current manipulated-reality obsession. Relevance? He’s a guy using his charm and current cultural cool to rewrite a less-than-ideal adolescence. And more power to him. The guy excels in his fashion career and through sheer balls builds an equally admired side career casting himself in every man’s porn fantasies. Most people would edit out these urges; Terry just bulls ahead.”
Upon encountering the man and his subtly well-composed wild sides, here are a few things to bear in mind: Terry Richardson is the progeny of Bob Richardson, the ’60s Blowup-era fashion photographer, and Annie Lomax, Bob’s former wife and stylist. That makes for a colorful back story, but it also means that while many of us were watching The Partridge Family and then going to bed, Terry was more or less running wild in the streets. “Basically, I went from Paris and New York, and my dad being really successful to my dad totally losing his career and my mom being in a car accident which left her permanently brain-damaged,” says Richardson. “Next thing you know, I’m losing my color TV and we’re on food stamps and welfare. Literally, from the penthouse to the park bench.” Richardson made his name and found fame in downtown New York but, in fact, spent much of his formative “punk rock youth” years in Hollywood — a Hollywood High Sheik who landed in New York with 800 bucks, a portfolio, a Pentax snapshot camera and three Black Flag cassettes. “To me, my best pictures happen when I capture the spirit of Black Flag’s Nervous Breakdown EP. The years I spent at places like Cathay De Grande and the Starwood [seminal L.A. punk joints] were where I believe my aesthetic was formed,” Terry smiles. “My tweaked Yale MFA, so to speak.” Richardson keeps coffee in his cupboard by shooting fashion campaigns for the likes of Miu Miu, Gucci, YSL, APC and Tommy Hilfiger and, in his spare time, makes art photos that have recently begun featuring himself, fully engorged, engaging in a dazzling array of tantric maneuvers with a variety of willing partners.
“I used to always want to shoot nudes, but when I’d say to models, ‘Hey, do you want to do this?’ they’d be like, ‘No way, why don’t you get naked?’ and I’d be like, ‘Forget that.’ Then I tried to get men involved in the process, but that was always weird, too. So then I got this idea that since I’d always got worked up and would, like, pop a boner when I was shooting women that maybe they’d get more into it if I let them start shooting me,” says Richardson. “So now I’ve got all of these rolls of myself where I’m being ordered around by women while they take nudes of me, all of which turned out to really be the catalyst for this whole most recent body of work.”
After sending a class he teaches to see the Deitch show, the art critic Jerry Saltz had this to report: “‘Way politically incorrect’ is right, but also maybe not. When we got to the Richardson show, which could be called ‘400 Blows’ because, as you probably know, it’s all-blowjobs-all-the-time, the boys dutifully all said it was ‘sexist’ and ‘bad’ while, at first, the girls sat back. Then they all started carrying on about how it looked fun: ‘Big dicks, blowjobs, cum on your tits.’ They were all delighted.”
The show clearly presents Richardson as a crafter of moods. “It’s really almost like what I’m doing is ‘happenings’ more so than photo shoots.” And more and more, especially with the Kibosh sessions, the actual snapper has, at times, become an almost secondary concern.
“The goal is to get the best image possible, and if that means that somebody standing off to the side gets a more candid shot than me, then I’m all for it,” Richardson laughs. “Which doesn’t always make my clients happy if I’m working on a job, but the way I see it, it really doesn’t matter who is actually pressing the shutter, because they’re my images. It’s a picture that I’ve created. I don’t work off lights and angles; I work off emotions. A mood that I create.”
Ever since he’s inserted himself as a predominant aspect of the subject matter, Richardson’s work has taken on a more conceptual bent, a kind of post-studio photo analogy to the likes of Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami or Maurizio Cattelan. Richardson’s recent hardbound offerings, Terryworld and Kibosh, combine to form an extensive survey of his work to date. Taschen’s Terryworld is the R-rated miniretrospective incorporating work from throughout Richardson’s myriad chapters, including some of the tamer takes from the new erotic work. Taschen elected to pass on Kibosh as a book by itself. Explains Hanson: “What Benedikt Taschen wanted was an artful and complimentary mixture of Terry’s fashion and candid work. What Terry wanted was to see himself boffing pretty girls in an art book. I was the referee. I had to keep pushing for more fashion and pulling the poop pictures out of the ‘yes’ pile each time Terry’d sneak them back in. In the end, I think we’re all pretty happy and that the book really does represent most of Terry’s complex and conflicting artistic nooks and crannies.” As for the more X-rated Kibosh, the Italian publisher Damiani stepped up and put out a limited edition of 2,000 after Taschen passed on the project.
“The Kibosh work is really a result of me getting clean [off drugs] and really getting into the high that I was experiencing from the sex,” says Richardson. “I mean, even one of the meanings of the title actually refers to me exorcising my inner demons and, hopefully, putting them to rest forever. To give it the ‘kibosh’ so to speak.”
Is it porn? Or is it art? Who even really knows anymore? Where the lines aren’t heavily blurred, they’re dotted. When I tell Richardson that my wife, after approaching his work with more than a little apprehension, laughed out loud at several of his images, he breaks into a grin.
“You see, I love when I can get a smile out of someone with an image I’ve made. I’m interested in bringing a little joy into people’s lives. Art doesn’t have to be so serious; I think it’s way more about moving people than needing to make them furrow their brows.”
Terryworld (Taschen) is available worldwide on October 29 wherever finer books are sold, including Taschen’s flagship store in Beverly Hills. Kibosh (Damiani) is available at www.TerryRichardson.com.