Last year, for a brief moment, it looked like the unstoppable career of fashion photographer Terry Richardson - a tattooed grinner in ironic side-plate-sized eyeglasses - might stop. Giggly "Uncle Terry," as he reportedly likes to be called, once said, "It's not who you know, it's who you blow." Ergo, last March, several models described working with him as a toxic cocktail of sexual harassment and coercion.
"He takes girls who are young, manipulates them to take their clothes off and takes pictures of them they will be ashamed of," Danish model Rie Rasmussen told the New York Post. She confronted Richardson at a Paris fashion event: "I told him, 'I hope you know you only [bleep]girls because you have a camera, lots of fashion contacts and get your pictures in Vogue.'" Richardson reportedly scurried away.
Yet a year later, he's back, unscathed and ubiquitous. Richardson is partying with Monica Lewinsky during Fashion Week. He's signing Lindsay Lohan for a book in which she'll appear nude with James Franco. (Lohan has denied these reports, saying any book will be "glamorous." Franco is too tired to comment.) And he's shooting an ad in which Lady Gaga rubs a snowboard against her naked body. Art! Irony! Hilarity!
Richardson continues landing plum gigs from such heavyweight institutions as Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, T (The New York Times's fashion magazine), H & M and Prada. His pictures are easy to identify: liquid-doused women with unhinged jaws, bent over or collapsed in front of a white wall, like hospital patients in couture. Last fall, Richardson's GQ photos of the cast of Glee drew the ire of a parent organization when he shot the stars (who are all in their 20s) sucking lollipops and displaying their white panties. Of course, the guys don't usually get this basement-porn treatment: Corey Monteith remained clothed, playing drums.
How does Richardson achieve his charming aesthetic? The website Jezebel gathered stories from several models who described him as an expert at parlaying a shoot's giddy party atmosphere into oral sex - and more - for Uncle Terry. On the website The Gloss, a former sometime-model named Jamie Peck described a shoot at Richardson's studio when she was a 19-year-old college freshman. He pleaded with her to make tampon tea, then took off his clothes and pressured her into a hand job (an assistant passed her a cloth).
The complaints created a maelstrom online - even influential teen blogger Tavi Gavinson weighed in against Richardson: "He's become this weird cultural icon whose 'thing' it is to be a perv."
Still, the mainstream press that employs Richardson barely blinked, confirming that the standards for professional propriety in the fashion world are radically different than any other workplace. Try to imagine an office where the boss took his pants off and this was considered Wednesday.
Perhaps the horror stories told by these models had so little impact because modeling is perceived as frivolous - or not work at all. And the means of creating the product, the photos, isn't open to scrutiny because the product passes as "art." But no matter how beautiful, fashion photography is simply commerce with artistic aspirations - and commercial enterprises require fair treatment for workers.
In the 2009 documentary film Picture Me, made by Ole Schell and former model Sara Ziff, years of behind the scenes footage paint a picture of a chaotic, unregulated industry built on the backs of young women ripe for exploitation.
By e-mail, Schell wrote that many of the working models he interviewed had at least one experience of sexual harassment (he did not speak about Richardson specifically).
"Keep in mind that many of the models are 14 or 15 when they start out in the business, often come from eastern Europe, don't speak much English and are without their parents," he said. "They can be sent on a casting and told by their bookers to make sure they impress the photographer who can potentially make their careers. This can be a brew for disaster for these young women who often don't know what to expect and what is appropriate."
Ole pointed out that the supermodel era is over and today a career might last a season or two. Surely this increased disposability ignites desperation to please in models of all ages, particularly in the presence of a world-renowned photographer masking his own sexual predilections under the triple shrug of "irony," "fun" and "art."
Ziff is working with Fordham University to form a Model Alliance, drafting a code of conduct for the industry and pushing for better working conditions. What's troubling is that the editors, fashion houses and celebrities who work with Richardson possess the power to improve those conditions right now by blacklisting him.
Until that happens, we fashion followers will be forced to witness a third decade of Richardson's bad art -his heroin chic, adolescent tittering, bloodless banality. Without preying on the women in the frame, many other photographers make gorgeous pictures that are provocative and very naked - sexy without being sexist.