Every magazine story begins with its headline. In the case of New York magazine’s profile of fashion photographer Terry Richardson — this week’s cover story — that headline takes the form of a question: “Is Terry Richardson an Artist or a Predator?”
Eye catching and provocative, sure, but also dumb, because, as many readers have pointed out, it sets up a false duality. Can Terry Richardson be only an artist or a predator? Can he not be both? Is he either? Ponder these question all you like. Benjamin Wallace’s profile in New York will not help you answer them.
The fashion photographer has gained both fame and notoriety for his lurid, sexually explicit photos, which often involve naked female models and his “big dick,” in the carefully chosen words of Dian Hanson, Richardson’s editor at Taschen. He’s also faced a rash of allegations of misconduct and harassment, including a lawsuit in 2005 and many troubling stories from former models who say the photographer manipulated them into sexual activity. (A first round of those appeared in 2010, with a second round following earlier this year.)
In the wake of the controversy that was revived a few months ago, Richardson took to the Huffington Post to defend himself. “Enabled and protected by the freewheeling and often times anonymous nature of the Internet, people have become comfortable concocting hate-filled and libelous tales about my professional and personal lives,” he wrote. His comments there echo the first words we hear from him in Wallace’s piece: “It’s insane, the internet … Totally craziness. Like a little cancer. People can just do whatever they want, say whatever they want, be totally anonymous. It’s totally out of control.”
Wow, how novel: a celebrity blames the internet and all the little people who’ve found their voices on it for being “out of control.”
Look, obviously we can’t expect Wallace to find out if Richardson definitively did or didn’t sexually harass any models — any writer would be hard-pressed to prove that one way or the other. But it would be great if the piece, which is ostensibly Richardson’s first high-profile interview since the latest round of allegations, contained any illuminating comments from the photographer on the matter. Alas, no. We have the internet blaming, and then we have this:
As for Richardson, “when I was taking those pictures,” he says, “I was very, like, ‘Cool, sounds great, let’s do it, great, okay, sure, great, cool, if not, no problem, never do anything you don’t want to do, of course, I totally respect that.’ ”
Do the models get that disclaimer in writing?
At least if Richardson’s going to be willfully naive, though, Wallace can give us some proper background. And there does come a point when it seems like he’s going to do it:
At some level, whether you believe Richardson was sexually coercive hinges on a judgment of the power dynamic in any given photo shoot, and of the agency of young models in the moral vacuum of the fashion world.
Oh yes, I found myself thinking, now is the time! Here is the part where he’s going to talk about larger problems in the culture of modeling and fashion photography that create these kinds of situations, where 19-year-old women feel powerless and, instead of speaking up for themselves, they “zoom out on the situation” and just go along with it.
Instead, he writes this:
“I think when you put yourself in front of a photographer, you have to have a clear idea of what you’re willing to do and what not,” says Freja Beha, the Danish supermodel. “[Richardson] has never taken me anywhere I’ve felt uncomfortable with. I’d even go so far as to say he’s one of the most sensitive people in the business, who’s quite honest about how he feels.”
Yes, that is a Danish supermodel being called on to explain the power dynamics between a world-renowned photographer and the unknown, not-even-21-year-old models who’ve stepped forward with horror stories. Kudos, whoever thought that was a good idea.
Wallace then continues:
Joan Juliet Buck, the writer and former editor of French Vogue, suggests the model-photographer dynamic is grayer than internet discourse allows. “When a beautiful young girl is standing on the paper, and the photographer is looking at her — that thing of being told you’re the most beautiful works everyone into a state of desire, where the girl is being appreciated and she feels loved,” she says. “There’s a very fine line between abuse of that innocence and validation of their beauty.”
Yes, that is a French Vogue editor talking about potential sexual abuse as a “validation of beauty.” Because at the end of the day, all women want is to be desired, especially by a guy who goes by the creepiest of monikers, “Uncle Terry.”
These are two of the many comments littered throughout the piece that reveal an almost impressively stubborn defense of Richardson. (“I think part of being a strong woman is owning the decisions that you’ve made in your life,” says his assistant, Alex Bolotow. “Trying to put the onus onto someone else for your own decisions is really cowardly and kind of dishonest.”) They come from editors, assistants, celebrities, and friends, and the like, all of whom get a chance to weigh in on the photographer’s character and process, and the way the fashion industry works. Meanwhile, the women who allege abuse are quoted only in retelling the details of their stories or secondhand; no words about power dynamics from them.
The profile doesn’t offer much insight on the controversies dogging Richardson, but it certainly does crystallize — and replicate — the yea-saying network that will allow him to keep avoiding them.