At 10:45 a.m. on Valentine’s Day, Terry Richardson arrived at the Smile, a farmhouse restaurant near his Lafayette Street studio. The fashion photographer was wearing a blue plaid shirt he bought for $5 on eBay, his hair a halo of speckled gray framing his customary black glasses. He is taller than he appears in photographs, usually alongside someone famous, his thumb turned up in what has become a signature gesture. Accompanied by Amanda Silverman, a friend and publicist, he sat at a table in the back and ordered a bowl of granola with honey.
For the past two years the once-loquacious Richardson, 46, has stopped giving interviews, telling friends that his work should speak for itself. But his reserve subsided over breakfast as he described an evening photo shoot in the late 1990s for the British fashion designer Katharine Hamnett, during which he rounded up some friends who were models and photographed them in various states of coupling as they wandered between his apartment and clubs of the East Village.
“When I got the contact sheets back there was this one image, two frames,” Richardson said. “There was a shot of a girl, with her legs open, she had white panties.” Then he noticed that her pubic hair was visible. “When I was shooting her, I didn’t see that,” Richardson said, adding, “It’s like a happy accident.”
Hamnett used the image in a subsequent ad. “People think you did it on purpose,” Richardson said of the shock value. “But to me it doesn’t really matter. It was still a cool image.”
Richardson has become known for a kind of glossed-up 1970s porn chic that is popular in high fashion. In the past 25 years he has been hired by Gucci, Miu Miu, Jimmy Choo, French Vogue and T: The New York Times Style Magazine, and has chronicled his sexual escapades in lavish photography books. He seems to revel in making viewers squirm while his subjects, often naked or nearly so, wink at the camera.
“That’s why we like him,” said the actress Chloe Sevigny, who has known him since 1995.
In recent years, Richardson has gone mainstream, a go-to celebrity portraitist who recently photographed Gwyneth Paltrow in a thigh-revealing Anthony Vaccarello dress for Harper’s Bazaar and the model Bar Refaeli straddling Ronnie Ortiz-Magro, a star of “Jersey Shore,” for Interview. He did ad campaigns for Levi’s and Nike.
And since Feb. 24, the Ohwow gallery in West Hollywood has shown an exhibit devoted to Richardson featuring landscapes “that look good on a wall,” as he put it, an artistic departure that may have surprised some of the opening’s 1,000 attendees, who included Tom Ford, the retired porn star Sasha Grey, Lindsay Lohan and the Hilton sisters. Even the photos Richardson took while trailing Lady Gaga for a year for her self-titled coffee table book (Grand Central Publishing) were PG-rated enough to be peddled to the masses. “He wanted to make something that would get in Walmart,” said Dian Hanson, a friend and editor at the art book publisher Taschen.
Richardson is more in demand than ever, and that means he has more at stake. “He is protective of the character,” said Fabien Baron, the art and creative director who has worked with him for more than a decade. “That is his business now.”
Perhaps this is why he seems to be tempering his bad-boy image, distancing himself professionally from the lothario persona he adopted early in his career. When Rie Rasmussen, a model and film director, told The New York Post in 2010 that she found Richardson’s images “degrading,” that wasn’t good for business. Nor when the supermodel Coco Rocha told Fashion magazine that she did not feel comfortable working with Richardson and wouldn’t do it again.
“Once somebody said, ‘You did x, y and z,’ it’s different,” said Al Moran, a longtime friend and a founder of the Ohwow gallery. “This persona you created that alludes to the fact you could do that, well, it blew up in his face.”
Rasmussen and Rocha declined to comment when reached through their representatives recently, and at Smile, Richardson was not interested in revisiting the controversy. “Of course it was hurtful,” he said. “Yes, I was upset. It’s not nice for all these people to make up stuff about you. The flip side is, I just stopped reading it and I kept working.”
Born in 1965, Richardson is the son of Bob Richardson, also a fashion photographer, who had schizophrenia but who was influential in the 1960s for his fresh, documentary style. His mother, Norma Kessler, divorced Bob in 1970 and changed her name to Annie Lomax after marrying Jackie Lomax, a British musician, and moved the family to Los Angeles.
As a youth Richardson experimented with drugs and was a regular at punk rock clubs. By 18, he was a heroin addict. (“Do you have to mention that?” he asked, stressing that he no longer takes drugs, drinks or smokes cigarettes.)
In a telephone interview, his stepfather, Lomax, described Richardson as resourceful in the face of a life unhinged.
“He is one of those guys who could be a smart criminal,” Lomax said affectionately. “I’m glad he’s found photography.”
Richardson said that in 1991 he moved to New York, where he recorded the underground nightlife of the downtown scene with a Ricoh point-and-shoot camera, finding work at magazines like Vibe and for the Italian designer Sisley. “I always stumbled into things,” he said. In 1996, Richardson said, he married Nikki Uberti, a model, but they were divorced by 1999.
In 2003, Hanson of Taschen was in the publisher’s Los Angeles office and found boxes containing photographs taken by Richardson, left by the wife of the company’s founder who had talked to him about a book, but passed. Many of them showed Richardson having sex with young women, as well as graphic images of women’s genitalia, which were later included in the book “Kibosh,” published by Damiani.
“I was single and I was going to explore sexuality,” Richardson said of the photographs. Hanson, a congenial 60-year-old, met with the photographer. “He took a lot of pictures of me, flattered me and made me feel good,” she said, adding, “I see how he gets people to take their clothes off.” They agreed to work on another project.
Hanson said she thought he took nude photos of himself not just to shock, but also to mask his shyness. “If you are standing there naked, people are going to think you are an extrovert with nothing to hide,” she said. (Richardson conceded that his signature smile and thumbs-up are “an obvious kind of way people can’t read exactly what you are thinking or feeling.”)
In 2004 Taschen released “Terryworld,” which, like “Kibosh,” was sexually graphic. In it, Richardson told Hanson he never asked a model to do anything that he wouldn’t do. (“I don’t think it makes a model get more comfortable when the photographer gets naked,” Hanson said.) He also said then, “Getting naked and running around, or having sex in front of a bunch of people, is such a rush.”
Richardson’s stepfather ascribed the behavior then to a rebellious streak. “I joked, ‘What are you doing showing your wedding tackle on the cover of a magazine?”’ Lomax said, adding: “He is in a bizarre business and he is a bit bizarre.”
Richardson is revered among magazine editors and corporate clients because he is fast and delivers distinctive, buzz-generating shots. When Michael Jackson died suddenly on June 25, 2009, Glenda Bailey, the editor of Harper’s Bazaar, said Richardson was given three days to shoot the English model Agyness Deyn in clothes inspired by the King of Pop. “The photographs,” she said, “had a real sense of vitality.”
For GQ’s November 2010 issue, Richardson photographed “Glee” cast members, including Dianna Agron and Lea Michele, prancing in a school hallway wearing thigh-high stockings, plaid miniskirts and barely buttoned blouses. The photos were “both sexualized and earnest,” said GQ’s editor, Jim Nelson, who began working with Richardson in 2004, adding, “I feel like there is a childlike joy he manages to get out of people.”
But the “Glee” photos, which received about 52 million page views on the magazine’s website, provoked an outcry among parents and prompted an apology from Agron to her fans.
Others, though, relish Richardson’s outrageousness. Last October, Bianca Kosoy, the executive creative director for Equinox, and about a half-dozen models gathered at an 18-room castle in Yonkers to begin a two-day shoot with Richardson for the fitness studio’s 2012 ad campaign.
Lady Gaga’s music pulsated on a boom box in a dressing room off the second floor’s main bedroom, Kosoy recalled, as a male model in a white suit and a woman dressed in a shimmering taupe gown lounged on a loveseat.
Once again, Richardson slipped into familiar terrain. “He egged them on to be more sexual,” said Kosoy, who enjoyed working with Richardson so much she got his signature tattooed on her arm. “I had to pull him back.” Kosoy said she took Richardson aside, and told him, “This is postcoital.”
“‘All right, kids! Postcoital!”’ Kosoy said Richardson shouted at the models. “Every time the flash went off, he said, ‘Postcoital!”’
When asked if he remembered the incident, Richardson said no. “But I’m going to use that line because it’s funny,” he said.
Sevigny recalled a photo shoot at Richardson’s studio for the November 2011 cover of Candy, a magazine that explores transgender issues that asked her to dress as the photographer. During the photo shoot, Richardson asked to kiss his doppelganger. (“The beard and the moustache, it was like, ehhhh!” he said at Smile. “Not used to that.”) The video of Terry kissing Terry was released online and was widely viewed.
“Maybe it is manipulative,” Sevigny said of his method. “But when you are with him, you don’t feel it.” She holds herself responsible for setting limits. “If I don’t want a video taken, I tell Seth,” she said, referring to Seth Goldfarb, Richardson’s studio manager, who also oversees his blog, TerrysDiary.com. “If you don’t want a photograph on the blog, you have to tell him that.” It can get tricky for a young model, Sevigny said, when the rules of any photo shoot are not established: “They walk out of there and cry, ‘What did I do?”’
The remarks from Rasmussen and Rocha in 2010 provoked a number of blog posts (many anonymous) in a similar vein. One woman who did sign her name, Jamie Peck, said that Richardson disrobed during her second visit to his studio in 2004 when she was 19, and asked her to take nude photographs of him. In a recent interview, Peck, now 26, said she agreed, but didn’t feel comfortable and later regretted her actions.
“If you are Barack Obama, you probably don’t need to be worried,” Peck said, referring to the 2007 Vibe photo Richardson shot of the president. Young models, though, she added, should “know what the boundaries are.”
Richardson, who declined to discuss Peck’s comments, said that while he may take his clothes off when working on personal projects like “Terryworld,” he stays clothed while taking commercial and magazine shots. “It’s not like I’m doing a professional shoot and it’s like, ‘Excuse me, do you mind if I get naked when I take pictures because this is how I like to work,”’ he said. “I’m not a nudist.”
Charlotte Free, 19, said she met Richardson when her agency, IMG Models, sent her to his studio a year ago for an open audition. His assistant took her photograph, which Free said she found out months later was posted on TerrysDiary.com.
But they have become friends.
“Terry is a very good listener,” Free said. “I talk a lot about aliens and conspiracy theories. He is the only one who will listen to me.” He has photographed her professionally five times, including for British Vogue, and she drops by his studio when she is in town. “He texts me and asks me to come by,” Free said. “Hanging out with Terry is like hanging out with my friends.”
After years of hanging out with celebrities, Richardson has arguably become one in his own right. He was practically joined at the hip to the actor Jared Leto during the most recent New York Fashion Week; the two accompanied each other to a dinner at the PierreÂ Hotel hosted by Marc Jacobs and Robert Duffy, among other events. “He’s allowed me to drop my guard,” Leto said, describing their friendship as a “bromance.”
Strangers often approach the photographer on the street, thumbs up, madly grinning. “Now, it’s branded,” Richardson said of the gesture.
But for many people it is hard to define where Richardson the brand ends and the man begins. “I think it has to do with Terry’s personal style of work,” said Doug Lloyd, a creative director and longtime friend. “He blurs the lines.”
Indeed, in Richardson’s view, there is little difference. “I think all your work is personal,” he said. “It’s your life.”