It wasn’t going to be possible for New York magazine’s profile of photographer Terry Richardson to be uncontroversial; it was, in fact, designed to be so, as is almost all coverage of Richardson—as is Richardson himself. But I wasn’t expecting to take offense before I even got to the content of the article; I wasn’t expecting to roll my eyes at the headline. And yet, there it was, the question around which the entire article was based, a question which entirely misses the point of why so many people are upset with the continued professional and social prominence of Terry Richardson (and, for that matter, Woody Allen or Roman Polanski or R. Kelly), a question, most importantly, that negates the insidiousness of the power dynamic at play in most professional predatory relationships, a dynamic which Richardson—and so many other men like him—exploits with a full awareness of how exactly he’ll be able to get a pass and continue to act in the same manner as always.
“Is Terry Richardson an Artist or a Predator?” New York asks, immediately steering the conversation about Richardson into a place where Richardson is afforded the benefit of a false dichotomy, one that supports the narrative that he’s created for himself. The whole artist or predator conversation is, let’s all say it together now, predicated on the assumption that one can not be an artist and a predator, and that anything predatory which is done in the name of art is therefore excusable as being part of a process bigger than the artist, and even more important than the humanity of the victims. It’s an argument that has been used by Richardson before, in an open letter he wrote after allegations against him by model Charlotte Waters. Richardson compared himself to Helmut Newton and Robert Mapplethorpe, writing, “People will always have strong opinions about challenging images, and the dichotomy of sex is that it is both the most natural and universal of human behaviors and also one of the most sensitive and divisive. Over the course of my career, I have come to accept that some of my more provocative work courts controversy, and as an artist, I value the discourse that arises from this.”
Of course, the problem here is that nobody is taking issue with the images Richardson creates, the issue is in how he obtains them. Numerous women have come forward over the last decade or so and complained that they felt coerced into sexual activity and that Richardson did not create a safe environment for the type of work on which they collaborated with him. Richardson denies this as being the case, and in the New York article, many of his friends, like Jared Leto, and co-workers defend him, but the women who have accused him are steadfast in their insistence that Richardson’s behavior was inappropriate and anomalous even in the world of hyper-sexualized photography. (New York for its part, is pretty clearly pro-Richardson and clearly thinks the accusers are full of shit, because some posed for him more than once, and another called herself “a pervert.”)
The most revealing quote, however, comes from a photography agent who chose to remain anonymous and had this to say about Richardson:
Kate Moss wasn’t asked to grab a hard dick. Miley Cyrus wasn’t asked to grab a hard dick. H&M models weren’t asked to grab a hard dick. But these other girls, the 19-year-old girl from Whereverville, should be the one to say, ‘I don’t think this is a good idea’? These girls are told by agents how important he is, and then they show up and it’s a bait and switch. This guy and his friends are literally like, ‘Grab my boner.’ Is this girl going to say no? And go back to the village? That’s not a real choice. It’s a false choice.
And it is. It’s so false a choice that it isn’t even close to being a choice at all. It’s a mandate. And it’s so pervasive in the world of fashion (and, let’s face it, in the world) that this anonymous photography agent couldn’t even reveal his or her name for, one would assume, fear of being blacklisted in a much more complete way that Richardson has been.
But as troubling as that false choice is, it’s only one part of this fabricated narrative of what it means to be an artist. As a culture, we’ve recently had to struggle with reconciling the art of people like Woody Allen or Roman Polanski with intensely disturbing personal behaviors. However, the difference in the Woody Allen and Terry Richardson debates is that it is actually possible to separate Allen’s personal life from his professional one, if only because there have been no accusations from people with whom Allen has worked about his behavior on the set. Allen’s art can be seen as distinct from Allen. Much of Richardson’s art, however, is contingent upon him engaging in certain behaviors which have allegedly transgressed from consensual sex acts and into coerced ones. It’s not just that Richardson is an artist and a predator, but that the very act of creating his art is predatory, and, therefore, tainted in a way that makes it impossible to engage with in the way that it is still possible to enjoy Chinatown or Rosemary’s Baby, despite what we know about Roman Polanski. And that’s why with Richardson, the question isn’t if he’s an artist or a predator, or if what he creates is actually art or simply exploitation. These things aren’t mutually exclusive, and in this case, they’re actually dependent upon one another. Richardson’s art wouldn’t exist without this type of predatory behavior, and his ability to be a predator of this type might not be possible without his art as an alibi. So, no, New York, the question isn’t whether Terry Richardson is an artist or a predator. The real question is, why we choose to embrace this type of predatory art at all. That is something we should all want answered.
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen