Pushing the Envelope?

Terry Richardson.

To some he is a visionary. A cultural behemoth.

His work, with its hallmark 1970s pornographic aesthetic, is as iconic as his signature handlebar moustache. It receives patronage from the most prestigious magazines – carrying, as it does, the dual stamp of editorial approval from Anna Wintour and Carine Roitfeld – and is feted by commercial clients.

To others he is a pornographer-in-chief.

With allegations that his modus operandi exploits the subjects of his art, it seems striking that – whilst Richardson’s trademark portraits are set against a white wall and bleached virginal with a strong-flash – a picture of the man himself is nuanced and dark.

I have long known his portfolio, and its flirtation with controversy, but had not felt the need to comment. Until now. Until this. (NSFW!)

The most preliminary examination of a glossy magazine will reveal that nudity and fashion form an intoxicating marriage.  Provocative images tumble from almost every page;  however, whilst some have pushed the boundaries of visual style or elicited my blushes, none have offended.  The naked female form holds such beauty, and – as Helmut Newton documented – this can often be captured by the lens with great taste and originality.

In furthering the genre of nude photography, some might argue that Richardson is merely the creative progeny of Newton. It might also be argued that my approval of one, and rain of opprobrium for the other, is contradictory. I would shrug my (fully clothed) shoulders and reply that an important distinction needs to be made.

Newton was an observer, Richardson is an actor.

There is something about his physical proximity to the subject in The Journal that transgresses the parameters of professional distance. The exchange, though consensual, seems violating insomuch as it accentuates the imbalance of power between the young woman and her celebrity photographer. The act of intimately touching her with his hands – rather than simply with the artistic gaze of a lens – makes a statement of his superior status and manipulates the model into being little more than a vessel for his own sexuality.

Newton empowered his subjects, Richardson makes them passive.

With a bruised face bereft of makeup and disarrayed hair, the model’s depiction gives every semblance of her being underage. Though contrived, this amplification of youth brings her vulnerability – and thus, exploitation – into even sharper focus. It is this quality of fragility that is not evidenced in the portraiture of Newton and, even though he worked with the same medium of raw, unprotected souls, his imagery gave every appearance of emboldening women with their own latent eroticism.

As one of the most prolific photographers of his age, it seems clear that Richardson’s entrenchment amongst the fashion elite is absolute. But should that be the case? Should the readers of fashion magazines find the pages adorned with images of genitalia so gratuitous it would make a gynecologist coy? Should editors continue to disseminate his work and, in doing so, legitimise pornography with the lofty titles of ‘fashion’ and ‘art’?

I will let you decide but let’s end on this…

Whilst the stench of misogyny and manipulation lingers on these particular prints, it is my hope that other strong voices of protest will be heard because, let’s face it, they put out a better message than the one Richardson seems intent on making.

{Okay, I’m coming off my soapbox now. The floor is yours.}

|Terry Richardson|

11 Comments

Filed under Style Souk

11 responses to “Pushing the Envelope?

  1. Mr Richardson is one of the greatest photographers. He might not be conventional but which genius is? His commercial and artistic success attest to his talent and singular vision … Not everyone can be boring like Anne Leibovitz and Mario Testino

  2. Luccia

    Sorry dears, he is not a genius, he is a fashion photographer, commercial and porn to the core.

  3. Carey

    Wrong. Richardson is a photographer who takes unnecessarily sexual pictures without any artistic merit. True geniuses don’t need to resort to exploiting underage girls, making them feel uncomfortable on set, and taking pictures of themselves under the model’s genitalia while grinning like a pedo. His commercial and artistic success attest to the ignorance of those who employ him and the people who somehow think these pictures are okay. Just because he is able to get away with his photos (for now), doesn’t mean he is anything near an artist, let alone a genius. He’s not edgy or unique; you can do a google search for PORN and find more tasteful/artistic images.

  4. Anonymous Me

    Why are magazine’s lionizing this asshole?

  5. Miss Coco

    Epic post, magazines like Vogue have a female readership and they need to start protecting us. I’m emailing the CEO at Conde Nast to complain about them using Terry Richardson.

  6. Wallflower

    I’m glad Tavi tweeted about you! Great to find more writers with a point of view.

  7. Emily

    Can I just point out that his home page picture is of him and president Obama? If you’re looking for messages what does this one say??

  8. Louis Sebastian

    Art is a protected sphere. He’s untouchable…..

  9. If nothing more, sometimes the best way to get back at these creeps is to educate the masses. Warn them. I can’t believe he gets away with this shit!

  10. splosh3000

    if its so terrible how come he has been getting away with it for so long?

  11. I think what he do is pretty conventional… Not original at all. Anybody can imagine it, but maybe for some certain things he did are fun or something.

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