How Terry Richardson created porn ‘chic’ and moulded the look of an era

“There’s a kind of natural urge to show off your body and sexuality and record it,” the photographer Terry Richardson told me in the autumn of 2000. “We all have our own internal porn star, and technology has allowed it to develop. You know, people flash the camera when they’re drunk at parties, there are couples filming themselves with camcorders, it’s like instant porn. That genuine, raw sexuality is breaking the veneer of polite behaviour all the time. I try to capture those moments.”

The words sound sinister after a week of re-reading the many allegations of sexual harrassment and assault made against Richardson since 2001. One man’s “genuine, raw sexuality”, we have been reminded, was for several women an exposed erect penis being waved in their faces.

And yet his proselytising was once taken seriously, and not only by the fashion industry. Curators at fine art galleries, broadsheet newspaper editors and highbrow book publishers all nodded along sagely. In 2000 I was interviewing him for a long story about pornography’s influence on fashion for the Daily Telegraph. I had been well placed to watch the phenomenon develop, having in the mid-90s edited the Face magazine, which ran some of his early pictures. Some of the less obvious reasons for the fashion industry’s delayed reaction to the allegations might be buried in that period.

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It also helped his cause that he could talk about his work as a social and artistic project, with a unifying aim and purpose.

“I’m interested in trying to capture something spontaneous,” he said. “Trying to capture those unpremeditated moments when people’s sexualities come up to the surface.”

He talked about his images being “fashion pictures that mix art and erotic photography”, and about his shoots as artistic “happenings” that he facilitated while other people actually pressed the camera shutter. His tongue may have been partly in his cheek, but part of him seemed to believe it.

At the start of the 2000s, Richardson’s own aesthetic and reputation really took off as, partly under his influence, fashionable young urban people adopted what the critic Mark Greif calls the white hipster style. As Greif has pointed out, this look – trucker caps, cap-sleeve T-shirts, Aviators, tattoos, porny moustaches, cheap tinned beer as a style statement – appropriated the taste of 1970s American white suburbs and “trailer trash”. And while this culture could seem terribly ironic and kitsch, it served as a cover for some 70s-style racism and sexism.

There is another point. In the Face’s office in the 1990s, issues were sometimes raised about the treatment of young models in Paris and Milan. In 1997 we ran a cover story by the writer Chris Heath in which the model Karen Elson spoke frankly about her experiences of those of her friends. Of working in Milan, she said:

“There are a lot of blond-hair, blue eyes very stunningly beautiful girls out there, and these men just say the most hideous things. Literally pull the pants down, do the thing, say ‘Amore – watch this.’ There were little 15- or 14-year-olds from Poland or from England or wherever, and they’d be out with these playboys in Italy, being taken out, wined and dined. And then guess what they expected in return?”

The story attracted angry complaints from Elson’s agency, Models One, and at one point during the interviews, we had the impression that it was trying to sabotage it. The agency was angry, chiefly because we had said that it had repeatedly lied to us during the arrangements, but I found it striking that they didn’t mention Elson’s complaints. And while agencies often protested that they couldn’t protect models all the time, they could get pretty protective when their own reputations were threatened.

If “everyone knew” about the Richardson allegations, so did the agencies who continued to send young women to his castings without – say the women – adequately preparing them. Most people in the industry agree that in recent years agencies’ responsibilities have been taken more seriously, particularly in London. However, there are still stories of predators in Milanese bars and Parisian nightclubs, and unknown sleazebags and women from Gdansk are less sexy for the media than stories in which you can show pictures of Miley on her wrecking ball, or weird Uncle Terry gurning with Barack Obama. It would be heartening if, rather than acting as if Condé Nast distancing itself from Richardson will purge such problems, the debate moved on to some of that.

 The author was editor of the Face from 1995-98

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