"Is Terry Richardson an Artist or a Predator?" wonders New York Magazine. Phrasing the proposition in that way — as an either-or binary — is not only insultingly reductive, it's also wildly misleading: as though it's possible that the end product justifies the sexual coercion that created it, or that a respected photographer isn't capable of preying on the women who pose for him.
Benjamin Wallace's extensive Richardson profile, billed as a more nuanced look at a "vilified" man, opens with Richardson lamenting the fact that "people can just do whatever they want, say whatever they want" on the Internet. In the third paragraph, Wallace mentions that an English model tweeted a screenshot of a Facebook message from Richardson telling her that he will exchange sex for a Vogue shoot, then dismisses it as "clearly an impersonation." It's not until the sixth paragraph — after enumerating all of Richardson's professional successes and accomplishments — that Wallace explicitly mentions Richardson's history of allegedly coercing unwilling models into sexual acts with him:
Richardson is also famous for another reason: He has cultivated a reputation of being a professional debauchee, a proud 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.
"Weren't altogether comfortable." Huh. Okay. Models have described "zooming out of the situation," "feeling nervous and paralyzed," and not wanting "to act scared or angry because I was in this guy's apartment with no one else around aside from his equally screwed-up assistant." Charlotte Waters, a model whom he allegedly assaulted on camera, says she had a "full-blown panic attack" after the shoot; "It's actually crazy to realize, at this point, how much that experience affected the path that my life took from then forward," she later said in an interview. "Weren't altogether comfortable," indeed.
Wallace's account consistently glosses over Richardson's sketchy behavior. "(W stopped using him for 14 years after its creative director deemed two of his pictures anti-Semitic)," he says in a glib aside. "His shoots could get wild," Wallace notes, mentioning one shoot for Supreme: Richardson's stated goal was "to put together a calendar you could jerk off to," he says. Without comment, he then quotes Richardson as saying it "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." Given the well-documented and troubling history of women freaking out and walking off set with Richardson, one would think that Wallace would delve further into this incident. But no.
In fact, it's not until halfway through the piece that you hear from any models who claim to have been exploited by Richardson —these accounts come only after we hear that Richardson is "polite, humble, collaborative, fast"; that he has a "big dick"; that his favorite sandwich is "English muffin, mayonnaise, avocado, Cheddar, tomato, salt, and pepper." Only after all of that do we finally hear from the models who claim they felt pressured into doing things they weren't comfortable with — one who walked off set after being asked to pantomime a blow job completely naked, one who was asked to "grab [Terry's] dick and twist it and squeeze it really hard, another to whom it was "strongly suggested" that she give him a handjob, one who describes herself going into a dissociative state as Richardson jacked off onto her face. Even later in the piece we learn that "as many as nine people depicted in the original Terryworld have threatened Richardson with lawsuits since its publication."
And then, of course, we have some of Richardson's character witnesses. They're quite the eclectic bunch — Gavin McInnes, the author of the infamous "Short Hair Is Rape" article on ThoughtCatalog, vouches for him. So does Richardson's assistant, Alex Bolotow, who has fellated Richardson in several photographs in her tenure at TerryWorld. Bolotow says she has little respect for the models who have come forward with allegations against Richardson: "I think part of being a strong woman is owning the decisions that you've made in your life," she states. "Trying to put the onus onto someone else for your own decisions is really cowardly and kind of dishonest." Not mentioned in this article, however, is the fact that Bolotow is Richardson's girlfriend — according to an anonymous source, they've been officially dating since late February. Huh. Seems like a relevant detail, right?
Despite what McInnes and Bolotow and Richardson's bevy of celebrity admirers may say, the fact that Richardson has a history of working with models who are not aware that they'll be asked to pose naked or, you know, touch his genitals is a big fucking deal. At one point, Wallace notes that there are now many "culturally engaged people, many of them young, who reject the sophisticated titillation that once greeted Richardson's work, seeing predation instead of transgression." He writes that this "is perplexing to the photographer, who finds himself maligned as repugnant for being the same person who was once broadly celebrated." This is a pretty damn specious way of looking at public rejection of Richardson's work: people aren't changing their views on the "sophisticated titillation" of his photos. They're learning that some of the women in them didn't consent to it.
That's why the false boundary between artist and predator is so entirely inconsequential here — although Wallace quotes Tavi Gevinson, who years ago wrote that "the quality of [Richardson's] photos is irrelevant to the fact that he had to sexually harass people to get them," that logic is largely absent from the profile. The fact of the matter is that some of Richardson's photos document him taking advantage of a skewed power dynamic in order to coerce models into doing things they don't want to do. His "art" documents his predation.
Here's Richardson on his process:
Terry sees his as more of a comic dance with the subject. "People go, 'What do you want to do?' What do you want to do? What are you feeling? Going into a shoot not fully knowing what I want to do—that excitement, that thing that happens, is just so powerful and makes such great pictures."
His 'signature spontaneous style' sometimes causes him to whip his dick out and request that the model get naked without warning. That's not Uncle Terry, just being typical Uncle Terry: it's unacceptable behavior occurring across an uneven power dynamic. If Richardson, a multi-millionaire, very successful, established fashion photographer says "Maybe you should take your top off," a 19-year-old, inexperienced model who's afraid of losing work will probably feel implied pressure to comply — something Richardson has to be aware of. And such "spontaneity" has no place on set at a photo shoot. As Jamie Peck, a model who had a terrible experience with Richardson, wrote in an open letter:
If he really wants to make sure his models are "aware of the nature of the work," why not sit down with them beforehand and talk about what they will and won't do, as is standard in the American porn industry? Why not put out an ad specifically looking for women who are comfortable getting facials on camera? Lord knows there are plenty of them! Why not have models sign releases after the shoot, not before as is his wont? Why not hold himself to a standard of enthusiastic consent, and not just the absence of a firm no? Why not do everything a man in his position can do to make sure girls aren't coming away from his studio with symptoms of PTSD?
The question here shouldn't be whether Richardson is an artist or a predator. It should be why, when so many women have come forward with allegations, are we still treating this question like it matters?
Image via NY Mag.