Not many photographers have become as iconic as the celebrities they shoot. You’re likely to be familiar with the work of Mario Testino, Steven Meisel and power duos such as Mert and Marcus and Inez and Vinoodh, but you probably wouldn’t be able to point them out in a sea of faces.
American photographer Terry Richardson, on the other hand, is the Karl Lagerfeld of the photography world, a supposedly behind-the-scenes player who has become a household name not only for his oeuvre but also for his uncanny look. Nerdy glasses, flannel shirts, wide grin and thumbs up – just do a quick web search and you’ll find plenty of portraits, most of them self-taken, of the controversial lensman, known for his raunchy images that have come to define the hipster scenes of downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Richardson’s signature raw style, which is a far cry from the heavily retouched and glossy pictures often associated with fashion, has spawned countless copycats in the last decade or so – companies such as American Apparel and publications such as Purple Fashion should pay him royalties, given that their visual identities are direct descendants of his work.
Love him or hate him – he’s been criticised for the risqué nature of his photos and his alleged inappropriate behaviour with models – the man is undeniably one of the most influential image-makers of the last 20 years. From his early days assisting his photographer father to shooting for top magazines and couture houses, Richardson has had a roller coaster of a career, as he explained during a recent interview in Hong Kong on the day of the opening of a portrait exhibition at Galerie Perrotin.
Your images have a very recognisable style. How did you develop it, and why do you think it has become so iconic?
When you start, you want to do something that’s from your heart and from your experience and that’s unique, that’s you, so you tap into that force and put it out. You need to do something different from what everyone else does. It’s just a type of process and eventually you find your style and your way. It’s an instinctual thing; it’s what you do. At the beginning I used a lot of snapshot cameras and it was very easy to take pictures; it was more about making images rather than … My big tagline is the mystique, not the technique. It’s just the camera, the lights and the set and just a loose, intimate moment with someone.
I always liked family snapshots and pictures you see of your grandparents when they’re on vacation; it’s the human quality of those things. I was always really drawn to that aesthetic and I thought it would be nice to take pictures that looked intimate and human and chilled, not formal and stiff. I liked the idea that you could shoot and talk. And people reacted differently; it was comfortable and not invasive and a different experience. And also by using a wall, I thought, how do I capture the energy of what’s around me and put it into a room, make it about New York and this energy and this kind of interaction between two people?
So how do you channel that same energy when you shoot objects such as the accessories for the Valentino Rockstud campaign?
I’ve been doing it for five or six seasons now. The first time we did it, we were in Rome and we had these shoes and these colourful backgrounds and we started to shoot but we felt that it didn’t work. The designers were there and they were very hands-on so they said, just put yourself into it. How do you do that? So I decided to hold the shoe and thought it was cool, and we did a few more and realised that this was really good and it was just spontaneous. It wasn’t thought about before – it was very organic. What you need to do is always be flexible: if something doesn’t work on set, you have to figure out what you need to do to make it work and move into a different direction. It was good and the response was great and it’s good when you work with people and it’s a real collaboration. You want to bring out the best in them and hopefully they do that for you too. When you work with brands like that you want to come up with the best possible result, the best image.
How is it to work on an advertising campaign as opposed to an editorial shoot or the portraits exhibited in Hong Kong?
Many of those portraits were done for magazines. It’s nice to do different things and it’s important to speak up when you don’t like the concept. I’ve definitely done commercial jobs in the past where I didn’t like the idea before I did it or the pictures, so I thought that I should have said something. It’s always about communication and being flexible and open. But to me it’s all part of your life so to an extent it’s personal; so maybe there are some ads that I would show in an exhibition. Certain companies are more conservative and they have an idea of what they want, but you have the option and can say that you don’t want to do it. You can say, let’s move into a different direction. Sometimes you have more freedom shooting ads than working for magazines.
Your subjects always seem to have fun. How do you make people like Obama feel comfortable while shooting them?
It’s really about communicating. If you let something of yourself come out, people respond. Obama was laughing, made faces – it was fun. We were laughing about stuff. Again, it’s the mystique, the way to connect people. I don’t know how it works, but it does and to me that’s a beautiful thing; when you have that exchange, working with people who are opening up, it’s the most incredible thing; you don’t even have to see the pictures and you know it’s happened. It’s amazing; you don’t always connect but when you do and people respond, it’s a great thing. It’s not like a trick or anything. Sometimes I do have props and a location but usually you just have a short time with someone so it’s just like a dance, an exchange, an interaction. That’s the magic: being able to make people be comfortable and open up, show their feelings.
Why did you decide to put yourself out there and why do you think you’re so well known when compared to other photographers?
Someone asked me once, we should do a fashion story with you; you’d be the model. I agreed. I was also shooting with Sisley, the Italian brand, and I shot a self-portrait and they said, it’s like an ad, really cool. There was no Sisley in it – it was just me holding up a beer laughing and they ran it and we kept doing it. It just kind of started and then through repetition it becomes like a thing. When I started using Instagram, I thought I’m just going to keep posing with people, but then I got sick of all that. It’s so predictable to do the same thing so I laid back a bit. At one point I thought that it would be really funny if every single picture of me was the same, me smiling with the thumbs up, but then I thought that that can’t be my only contribution to photography … Plus my thumb is swollen, damaged from all the thumbs up (laughs). I do get recognised and I sometimes forget why and I’m surprised. Now, with Instagram, people want pictures all the time, even when you’re eating food or you’re at the gym. That’s the weird thing. Even people who come here [Galerie Perrotin], they want to see the show but really they want to take a picture for their Instagram. It’s a hunt. People always sneak pictures when I’m outside.
Speaking of Instagram, what do you make of its impact, now that people curate their photos as if they were professional photographers?
Just because I can play a few chords on a guitar, it doesn’t mean I can write a great song. People love taking pictures but not everyone can be a great image-maker, but there are some who are great. Some of my friends give their kids cameras and that’s very interesting; the way they see things and the perspective, from very low. It’s interesting to see what’s going to happen in the future. But for now, it definitely created more need for content. People need shots for Instagram and stuff like that. You just have to do it but you charge for it, so it becomes this whole thing.
Your father was a photographer. Can you tell me more about how you started out and your beginnings?
I was around my dad when I was a kid. He would take pictures of me and I was on Vogue shoots and in his studio all the time. I played music before I took pictures and I started assisting someone in LA who was a friend of my father’s, but I didn’t know anything. He taught me the basic stuff that I’ve kind of forgotten now. So I started taking pictures of friends and stuff like that and you get to a moment when you realise that this is what you want to do. It kind of completely envelops you. I was in San Francisco with my dad and he was mentoring me. When you start, you think, what can I do to get work, what kind of portfolio can I build? I did one that was just pictures of people having sex and doing drugs. It was very violent and shocking and I went to New York and showed it to magazines and they all said, this is great but we can’t hire you because it’s too strong; so I went back and did more fashion-oriented photos and I started getting a little bit of work from that.
Then I worked with my father for seven or eight months; we were like a team. Working with my dad was insane and we broke up as a team, but at that moment I knew what I wanted to do, working with a flash and all that kind of stuff. Once I moved to New York, I also realised that you can’t do what you think they want you to do but do what you want; you have to do what’s inside you and that’s a big difference. When people want to get work, they adjust and compromise, but that was like school to me, that was learning, doing all those portfolios. If you’re trying to do something for them, it’s not pure, it’s not true, it’s usually derivative of something else. For me it was hanging out in a park in the East Village in the ’90s and just watching people. Friends would say, go and check out that cool person, that hustler guy … You just take pictures. A friend said once, photography is not about waiting for the phone call, waiting for the job, but about taking pictures. That’s what changed it for me. I wasn’t going to try and take pictures just to get work, but to get pictures of street people, people partying and making out and pictures of my friends in the East Village. Those are the pictures that got me work and that became my style.
Finally, how do you feel about the criticism your work has incurred for its nature and about becoming this kind of scapegoat for photographers who behave badly?
When you do provocative work and it’s not lights and this and that but very raw, people interpret it and react to it in different ways than other types of work. To me, exploring all that imagery is about being free. It’s a celebration of life and being human – fun. It’s an interaction between people who are very human and a celebration of love and life, lust and nudity and pleasure. Every time you do provocative work people can respond in certain ways and are uncomfortable, but it’s part of my work and part of my story. You just have to stay true and explore different things as well. It’s nice to photograph different things, but you get known for a certain thing and it’s just an aspect of what you do.