Posing For Terry

Photographer Terry Richardson has been known to push the envelope with young, female models.
Photographer Terry Richardson has been known to push the envelope with young, female models.

How A Career In Pictures Covered the Tracks of Fashion’s Most Notorious Creep

By Mateeka Lanee

There are few more dominating industries than fashion. Young people may not know how much a gallon of gas costs at the local 7-11, or who the Secretary of Defense is, but which awards ceremony did Miley Cyrus wear the Biggie and Tupac dress to? They’ll know the answer (it’s the EMA’s, by the way).

Fashion, and all of its related elements have and will continue to be the bar by which social status often is set. Price tags, fabrics, and brand monograms are, unfortunately, quick and easy “tells” that can give away a lot about a person. There’s no faster way to pick your friends than to judge them from a superficial interpretation of their socioeconomic class, age, and level of “cool.” It’s been this way in America surely since before the Pilgrims and the Indians feasted together and whispered about each others’ choice of outfits.

The problem with this, of course, is that clothing, rather than being simply an expression of oneself, is instead used as a  sort of totem pole to illustrate power and influence. When poor kids start rocking Louis Vuitton, however, all traditional “tells” are tossed out the window. And when a pervert somehow earns the power and influence to turn wannabe-model nobodies into fashion somebodies, it’s not just the protege whose integrity is at stake.

Terry Richardson is an internationally recognized fashion photographer with clients ranging from Rolling Stone to  Vogue. He has worked with hundreds of celebrity models and even has done a shoot with President Obama.

Starting professional work as a partner to his schizophrenic father (who studied art with Andy Warhol) in the 90s, Richardson found major career success following the first shoot he did, solo, for Vibe magazine. Since then, he has forged himself into the most prominent of fashion’s consciousness – that of imagery. Take even a glance at his impressive portfolio to see the names of both modeling giants like Coco Rocha and Kate Moss, and celebrities including Miley Cyrus and Rihanna. It’s obvious the man is talented, and no doubt hardworking. His work is often sensual, even racy. However, it has not been the final product of Richardson’s work that is most disturbing, even perverse.

In 2010, public allegations were made from various models following the release of Richardson’s solo art book, Terryworld, accusing him of sexual misconduct. Model/writer/actress Rie Rasmussen stated at Paris Fashion Week that year that Richardson’s work was “degrading to women,” stating furthermore that he “takes girls who are young, manipulates them to take their clothes off and takes pictures of them they will be ashamed of.”

Take a peek online to see reprints of some of the shots featured in the book (you can find it online for your coffee table, too, if your guests would appreciate viewing genitals with their green tea). The essence of the book is that of “American Apparel ads gone wild,” but with no apparent purpose other than shock value. At least AA is trying to sell you a good-ol’ pair of American-made shorts and knee-high socks.

Where exactly were these allegations supposed to resonate for the average magazine reader? No one, except maybe those of us addicted to America’s Next Top Model, can understand some of the hard work that goes on behind the scenes at photo shoots. Outrageous outfits and unnatural stunts can be pretty routine for models. Awkward posing? Sure. But surely no 19-year-old young model walks into a shoot expecting to be asked to give oral sex to her photographer, or perhaps worse yet, to take the camera into her own hands to shoot her photographer’s junk?

These are just a couple of the disturbing tasks models have apparently been asked to complete by Terry Richardson. In 2004, Richardson spoke in an interview with the New York Observer explaining “a lot of it starts with me saying to a girl, ‘Do you want to do nudes?’ And they’re like, ‘I don’t want to be naked,’ […] So I say, ‘I’ll be naked and you take the pictures. You can have the camera. You can have the phallus.’ ”

With a possible career startup in the balance, and a room of assistants assuring you this is totally cool and normal, how could a young girl say no?

Women’s interest website thegloss.com posted an article in 2010 with the story of a 19-year-old girl named Jamie Peck, who recalled the strange requests made to her from Richardson, including that she allow him to play with her used tampon and rub him off with her hand. Other stories, similar to Peck’s appeared online and in print, and while jarring, soon faded into meaningless babble. There was a murmured notion that, if a girl felt uncomfortable, why didn’t she just leave the shoot? Moreover, what could it mean for a handful of unknown girls to accuse an internationally respected photographer, one of the best in the fashion business, of sexual misconduct? If there isn’t a gun placed to the head of a rape victim, is it still rape?

This isn’t to say that Terry Richardson is in the same realm as a rapist. However, taking advantage of girls looking to the authority of an established fashion ingenue for guidance in their art for personal pleasure is certainly a faux pas.

Shortly after Rie Rasmussen’s outcry, several other models, many of whom are fresh-faced models looking for their “big break,” also spoke out. Several controversial editorials and interviews were printed following the debacle, a few people huffed in disgust, and then…nothing happened. Today, Richardson is almost revered by young photography and  modeling hopefuls, is still booked by prominent agencies, and is still featured in multi-page spreads in the glossies. He can be seen by a new generation of young people on Tumblr, chilling with Gaga and Daft Punk. How is this possible?

What’s up for debate isn’t whether or not these allegations are true, really. Reading through interviews of Richardson talking about his “creative process” is evidence enough. The question is, how is it that he still has a career? Is it true – well, perhaps it’s true, but is it right – that a man can manipulate and sexually harass women in the workplace with no consequences?

As fleeting as fashion’s tastes may be, those in the center of its gaze can hold more power for the average citizen than most elected officials. No matter how strange or offensive its behavior (see the 80s, harem pants, and the outfits of Lady Gaga for examples), fashion whims hold the power of immediate influence all in the name of what is misnamed as “art.” Thus, Richardson also has acquired his omnipotent hold on mainstream photography. But, just because something is popular doesn’t make it right. When girls are objectified to shock and awe, it’s all of fashion culture that suffers.