Terry Richardson is a 36-year-old with a handlebar mustache, long sideburns, and a collection of odd tattoos, including one on his belly that says t-bone and one on his heart that reads ssa. He's tall and a bit bandy, and he's likely to be wearing faded jeans, Converse sneakers, and giant, slightly tinted aviator glasses. He's seventies-looking, not in a retro hipster way but in a Starsky & Hutch way, with a touch of Burt Reynolds thrown in for good measure. He's charismatic and famously attractive to women, despite his somewhat cartoonish demeanor. And much of the time, he carries a small snapshot camera with him, just like one you might take on holiday to record your adventures, which is more or less what he does for a living.
While most fashion photographers travel with a phalanx of good-looking young assistants wielding lights and oversized lenses, tripods, film bags, and reflectors, Richardson arrives on location with a couple of instant cameras, one in each hand, and nothing else. He doesn't design the lighting, doesn't plan his shoots, forgoes Polaroids, and never choreographs poses. He likes to work with little fuss and no entourage. And yet, in the last few years he has shot campaigns for Evian, Eres, H&M, Tommy Hilfiger, Anna Molinari, A|X, Sisley, and now -- one of the biggest scores in the fashion world -- the fall campaign for Gucci.
"You know how cameras are supposed to symbolize sexual power?" asks the creative director Nikko Amandonico, who has worked with Richardson since 1998 on the Sisley campaigns. "Well, Terry is a big man with a tiny camera. He looks funny. He makes jokes with his camera, and that's how he gets the shots."
Richardson has wielded his point-and-shoot on Faye Dunaway, Catherine Deneuve, Sharon Stone, the Spice Girls, and a great many famous models. His work has been exhibited in galleries in London, Paris, and New York, and he has been published in magazines as varied as French Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, i-D, Vibe, The Face, and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.
"It's the most amazing feeling when you are shooting something that you know is good: It's like great sex."
"At the beginning," Richardson says, "people laughed at me because I was using snappies. Sometimes, a celebrity would look at my camera and go, 'Oh, I've got one of those.' I'd feel like handing it to them and saying, 'Well, you take the pictures then.' But I like using snapshot cameras because they're idiot-proof. I have bad eyesight, and I'm no good at focusing big cameras.
"Anyway," he continues, becoming more animated, "you can't give your photograph soul with technique. I want my photos to be fresh and urgent. A good photograph should be a call to arms. It should say, 'Fucking now. The time is ripe. Come on.' "
These days Richardson is enjoying what many in the fashion world call a moment. Designers and stylists are entranced by the way he gives a glossy fashion spread a palpable -- and somewhat coarse -- sexual punch. "He's a modern Helmut Newton," raves Emmanuelle Alt, the fashion director of French Vogue.
"We'd run the gamut of slick, finished photography," says Douglas Lloyd, the art director behind the Gucci campaigns, about the decision to use Richardson. "We wanted a rawer energy and more sex appeal, and that's what you find in Terry's work."
"Terry is very much about sex," says Gucci designer Tom Ford, "but what I love about his work is that his pictures jump off the page at you." In fact, Richardson has already been confirmed as the photographer of choice to shoot the next go-round for Gucci, which will feature Ford's spring 2002 collection.
This is what happened the day in June when Richardson received the news:
He spent the morning in his studio on the Bowery -- a long space with a white shag pile carpet at one end, a workstation at the other, and a full-length mirror in between -- catching up on phone calls and editing prints with his associate, Seth Goldfarb. Benedikt Taschen, the iconoclastic art-book publisher, was in touch about the possibility of doing a book. Harper's Bazaar called about booking him to shoot a fashion story for Glenda Bailey's first official issue. Then Tom Ford called.
In the afternoon, a band named the Centuries came over to the loft. They were wearing gold and silver lamé outfits, and Richardson photographed them as part of a series he is doing for the French magazine Self Service. The early part of the evening he spent with Lenny Kravitz, discussing the next day's shoot, when Richardson would photograph Kravitz for his new record cover. Then he went to Sophie Dahl's rooftop party. At the party, a young stylist asked him if he was the son of Bob Richardson, the renowned sixties-era fashion photographer. "Yep," Richardson said, biting into a piece of mozzarella, "son of Bob."
"How is Bob?" asked the stylist. "He's well," said Terry, enjoying his supper. "Still working. Still wakes up with a hard-on every day. Pretty good for 74 years old." He demonstrated what he meant with a breadstick, took a snapshot of someone with his Contax, then told a story about a curious wet dream he had had only the night before.
Two days later, I watched as he packed his cameras and his suitcase for a trip to Paris, where he would visit his girlfriend, Camille Bidault-Waddington (a stylist who was named one of the world's most fashionable women by Harper's Bazaar), and shoot his next project, a couture story for French Vogue, with the model Angela Lindvall. Not too shabby, I remarked. "I know," he said, grinning. "I'll be like, 'Hello. Hello! Only me. Bonjour!' "
"I don't think Terry can believe his luck," says the British stylist Cathy Kasterine. "A lot of photographers become frustrated once they've shot a few big campaigns and done their fair share of fashion stories. They don't know what to say about fashion anymore. But not Terry. Every photograph for him is an adventure." She starts to laugh.
"Sorry," she says, "I was just thinking of how he looked when we first worked together. It was during his American-professor phase; he was wearing huge corduroy trousers and an English tweed jacket. This was in the bowels of Florida, at a nudist camp, where we were shooting an accessories story for Nova magazine. But that's Terry. He makes you laugh; his photographs make you laugh."
Still, much of the work Richardson is famous for is provocative and confrontational: a close-up of Richardson performing cunnilingus; a nude portrait of a bruised young woman crying on his bed; a close-up crotch shot of a woman wearing pink polyester underpants. One of his early assignments, a startling advertising campaign for the British designer Katherine Hamnett, captured a young woman staring at the camera with a frank, unashamed look. Her legs are open, showing a profusion of pubic hair. The photographs, after causing a stir in Britain, where they were published, provided Richardson with his first big break and foreshadowed the controversial "kiddie porn" Calvin Klein campaign.
As disturbing as some of his images can be, Richardson himself seems to generate general goodwill from everyone he works with, from corporate giants who entrust him with their commercial campaigns to notoriously fickle editors-in-chief. "You can be afraid of Terry and his work if you look at the stuff he does privately," says Alt. "As a woman, I found those pictures really scary. But I think he can approach chic very easily. And he is very sweet and charming -- he's very fun to work with."