Politics & Policy

The Unhealthy World of Uncle Terry

A new cover story on Terry Richardson reveals some latent issues in the photographer’s past and present.

New York magazine’s cover story this week is entitled, “Is Terry Richardson an Artist or a Predator?” If you read it, you’ll learn two things about the infamous photographer: He thinks the allegations of his sexual inappropriateness are literally everyone else’s but his; and Terry Richardson is seriously in need of psychological help.

I felt compelled to read the story after writing about Richardson earlier this year. In April, a model took a screenshot of a Facebook message,from an account that claimed to be Richardson’s​, that claimed the sender could get the model in Vogue if she slept with him. This news recalled past reports of the photographer’s using his power in the fashion industry to coerce young models to perform sexual acts they were not comfortable with. Richardson may have been hoping to get past these new allegations by speaking with New York.

The story, written by New York’s Benjamin Wallace, opens with a quote from Richardson, doing his best drunk-uncle impression. “It’s insane, the Internet,” Richardson says. “Totally craziness. Like a little cancer. People can just do whatever they want, say whatever they want, be totally anonymous.” That is, in fact, how the Internet works. I expected the next few lines to include the phrase, “Dosh-garn kids with their hippity-hop music.”

Richardson also blames the models’ bookers and agents for encouraging them to take assignments they were uncomfortable with. And, of course, he blames the models who have accused him of sexual misconduct themselves. His assistant of about ten years, Alex Bolotow, has “little respect” for some of the models “who did things with Richardson and then later publicly blamed him for it.” Bolotow, who appeared in at least 90 photographs in Richardson’s book Kibosh, says she does not regret posing for her boss. She resents pictures of her being used as examples of Richardson’s perversity, including several infamous pictures of her fellating Richardson.

“There was something exciting about being involved in something that feels just really freeing, like, ‘Oh, I’m totally expressing myself, this is great,’” says the woman who expressed herself through a photo in which she performs oral sex on the balding photographer with the word SLUT written across her forehead. (She claims that particular picture was her idea.)

Wallace does an excellent job of outlining Richardson’s extremely troubled childhood. His father, a famous fashion photographer himself, left his mother for seventeen-year-old Anjelica Huston before “descending into schizophrenia and homelessness.” When Richardson was three years old, his father attempted suicide for the first time and soon after Terry himself swallowed too many aspirin and had his stomach pumped. Richardson seems to have been introduced to sex in a way that left him damaged. After his parents divorced, Richardson’s mother took a series of lovers and would often leave him home alone while she went on dates. One summer when he was seven or eight years old, he would hear his father and Huston having sex every day. In a 1998 interview, he stated, “I used to hear voices in my head, but that’s gone away a little now.” A little? By 1998, Richardson was already world-famous. This is not a man who should be in sexually charged situations with vulnerable young women.

Richardson had to have his stomach pumped again at 14, and by 18 he was using heroin. According to Wallace, he wears a Narcotics Anonymous medal, regularly attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and “has had a lot of psychotherapy.” However, when Wallace outlines some of his behavior in photo shoots, it is clear that Richardson is not a mentally healthy man. Richardson “routinely” takes off his own clothes during shoots to “make models comfortable posing naked.”

Question, ladies: If you were getting your annual physical and the doctor asked you to take your clothes off, would you be more or less comfortable if the doctor also took his clothes off? I suspect models would feel the same way about an ugly, naked, old, heavily tattooed fashion photographer.

Wallace describes a scene in the 1990s, when Richardson’s fame really began to skyrocket. The artist commissioned some of the Jackass cast to pull a girl’s hair while someone masturbated over her with a gun pointed to her head. Richardson’s book, Kibosh, is “a black, clothbound monument to Richardson’s penis, which appears in most of the 358 images.” Richardson described the book as his “life’s work” and “the summary of [his] career.” I’m not a shrink, but I suspect a man who concocts a scene depicting such violence against women and is that preoccupied with his private parts may have some innate anger and unsettled feelings regarding women and sex. Richardson doesn’t need a camera; he needs a therapist.

Most of the fashion world still regards Richardson’s work as brilliant, and it may be, if his body of work weren’t so crowded with near-pornographic images. The fashion world, as a whole, should stop sending young impressionable models his way, and maybe start sending him recommendations for some good psychotherapists. Our culture is so obsessed with accepting everything sexual as “expressing yourself” that it lauds sexual predators like Richardson for behavior that we would consider horribly unhealthy in any non-media context. Calling him a genius and throwing him $100,000 contracts is telling him that this behavior is normal, acceptable, and worthy of celebration.

— Christine Sisto is an editorial associate at National Review Online

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