There’s a wonderful quote from Jessica Mitford that I’ve found immensely useful during this past month of sexual assault and harassment revelations made about some of the entertainment industry’s most powerful and influential men: ‘You may not be able to change the world but at least you can embarrass the guilty.’ As Harvey Weinstein was cast out of Hollywood, a steady stream of abusive men followed suit, as women finally felt safe to talk about their experiences, and angry enough to demand justice after years of being ignored.
One of the most notable examples of this came as Condé Nast International, the publishing company that includes Vogue, GQ and Vanity Fair, were reported to have decided to stop working with infamous photographer Terry Richardson. The man the fashion world called Uncle Terry, who photographed everyone from Miley Cyrus to Barack Obama, has a distinctive pornographic style matched only by his extensively documented behaviour in terms of creep factor. This is the man who frequently got his own dick out for photo-shoots, and who had been accused multiple times of manipulating and harassing young models who came to work with him. For many years, he commanded top dollar to shoot ad campaigns for major brands like Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford and Playboy, and did so while bragging that ‘it’s not who you know, it’s who you blow. I don’t have a hole in my jeans for nothing’. That it took the downfall of Harvey Weinstein to see Richardson brought to some kind of justice - business, if not legal - speaks volumes about the industry’s priorities. Decency won’t get the job done, but the threat of humiliation will.
Richardson was a proud creator of sleaze, and he turned that seedy combination of flesh and over-exposed lighting into a trademark that had the fashion world scrambling for a piece of it. His habit of adding himself to the shot with a leering smile and thumbs up was somehow part of the charm, even as he did so topless or even with his dick out. Everything was porn in his gaze, to the point where he turned a campaign for the gym chain Equinox into a cross between Gossip Girl and an escort ring. There was also the David Webb campaign where he photographed himself holding a model close while he sucked on one of her fingers (then had her chewing on a stretchy doll version of himself, which is always what I want to see when I’m buying jewellery). Frequently, the models or major celebrities wear his glasses. Richardson’s narcissism is beyond even that of an industry that prizes itself on the quality. On top of all that, it’s not even great photography. The effect given is that of a late night webcam sex show, which is depressingly probably what he was going for, and billing that as some ironic nod to porn culture has given him a truckload of industry cache.
Richardson delighted in his sexually explicit works (dear lord, don’t google the nude stuff, I beg of you), but always claimed they were consensual. Given the stories we’ve heard of young models like Jamie Peck being coerced into giving him a handjob and being asked to take out her tampon for him to make tea with, it’s safe to say that his claims can be brought into doubt. In 2014, Jezebel published an account of alleged sexual assault made by an anonymous stylist who was named only as Anna, in which she said Richardson’s ‘semi-hard penis was plunged into the outside of my cheek, and he was jabbing it into my face.’ Then 19 year old model Charlotte Waters talks of a sickening session in which ‘we moved over to a couch, and he had me pose on it with my back to him, and I literally felt him come over and start licking my ass’. While this was happening, Richardson’s assistant ‘came over and started taking pictures with this little point-and-shoot camera.’
These stories are sadly plentiful, and the same themes occur over and over: The discomfiting conversations, the sexual coercion, the goading from assistants or others on-set, and the insistence that all of this is good fun. Every woman has encountered a situation, to varying degrees of seriousness, where a group of people have told her to stop being a spoilsport and just loosen up. If you’re a 19 year old model, and up and comer in an industry where your shelf life is highly limited and your agent tells you this is a major job, the eagerness to not be the party-pooper must be overwhelming, particularly when you’re surrounded by cronies of the abuser telling you that you’re doing such a great job and photographing the assault while it happens as ‘art’.
These stories have been around for many years, some more extensively covered than others, but nobody in the fashion world or adjacent to it could claim ignorance on the issue, which is what makes so many years of silence baffling. Brands and publications distance themselves now, but for many years as these allegations came out, it feels as though they were happy to tolerate or ignore them because it added to his supposed edge. The age-old adage goes that sex sells, and nobody made sex look more tawdry and easy to package than Uncle Terry. That ‘edginess’ he prided himself on was a tool he wielded with scary effectiveness, as it allowed him to pass off his abuse as ‘art’. It’s the same as any maniacal director who screams gendered epithets at their actresses under the guise of helping them to get into character: Richardson says he wants to be daring, and the barely legal young women forced into collaborating with him must be just as brazen or risk never working again. The fashion world adored that so-called edge, hoping it would rub off on them and make their brands more appealing to whatever demographic they coveted. Beauty is forever but the women they hire to embody that ideal are forever disposable, washed up once they hit size 8 or age 29. If one of them cries foul of Uncle Terry then they had plenty more eager faces, younger and thinner and more naïve, to take that empty place.
Richardson is a foul boil on a beautiful canvas, but it’s a canvas that hides a festering problem of systemic misogyny that cannot be dismissed or ignored simply because they’ve finally decided to deal with one of their most insidious figures. Harvey Weinstein is not the bad egg of Hollywood and Terry Richardson is not the one rotten apple in the barrel of fashion and photography. Both are simply the most obvious examples of how much badness you can get away with if people think you can make them enough money.
It should also go without saying but Terry Richardson is a fucking abysmal photographer.