An anthology of Bob Richardson’s photos equally reveals his son, Terry.
Some men teach their sons to play baseball. Others help them with college applications. The photographer Bob Richardson rarely did anything conventional with his son, Terry, but he had lots of advice when his son stepped behind the camera.
“He told me that, to get attention, you have to really push it,” says Richardson fils. “He said, ‘Let it all show.’ You might say I took it a little too literally.”
You might indeed. In the last decade, Terry has photographed his own genitals enough times to make Jenna Jameson blush, in between shooting ad campaigns for Gucci, Miu Miu and Sisley. This summer, several fashion glossies rejected a shot from his Tom Ford fragrance campaign in which the cologne bottle was placed in front of a woman’s exposed nether region.
“Sex sells,” Terry says, discussing why he pushes the boundaries of good taste. “You don’t buy perfume so people won’t notice you.”
Perhaps not. But sitting on the deck of his Lower East Side studio today, the photographer is selling something a little less X-rated: a coffee-table book of his father’s old photographs and memoirs that comes out in September. The book, Bob Richardson, was a labor of love that Terry put together following his father’s death in 2005 at the age of 77. And, though most anthologies of this sort are fairly simple to cobble together, tracking down Bob’s photos turned out to be about as easy as a dig for dinosaur remains.
“From all his work in the Sixties and Seventies,” says Terry, “there’s less than 20 original chromes left. That’s less than half a roll of film. So we used images from other books and scanned old magazines, anything we could find. Because there was almost nothing lying around.”
Not that this would really surprise anyone who knew Bob. His pictures were complicated, his life even more so. After gaining recognition in the Sixties for bringing sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll to fashion photography, the elder Richardson spiraled into mental illness and faded from view.
“I started rescuing him when I was 18,” says Terry, 42. “He’d be homeless and I’d get him off the street. He’d be in jail, I’d bail him out. I’d get him an apartment, then he’d disappear again. It went on like that for 20 years.”
The way Terry nonchalantly tells it, it’s all part of his kooky family history. But it was a tragic second act for a man who’d once boasted that he was better than Avedon. After growing up in Brooklyn—where he was born in 1928—and Rockville Centre, N.Y., Bob attended Parsons School of Design, then worked in textiles. In his 30s, he got his first camera and quickly found work at Harper’s Bazaar and Glamour, with editors like Joan Juliet Buck, Polly Mellen and Deborah Turbeville (who later became a photographer herself).
“He was using the mute medium of fashion photography to tell a tortured emotional story,” says Buck. “Avedon was about the beauty of a woman’s face, the beauty of a dress, the beauty of fashion. Bob’s stuff was about the pain of being alive.”
In the elder Richardson’s most iconic picture, taken for French Vogue, a young Donna Mitchell lies on a beach with her head resting on a man’s lower back. The two people are clearly lovers, but the emotional distance between them is palpable. A tear runs down Mitchell’s cheek, her mascara is smudged. Her boyfriend seems oblivious to her.
“I shot the Italian collections with him once,” says Mellen, “and we met this family of nobility whose son was a cripple. Bob decided to shoot him. But we took the picture and Nancy White, the editor of Harper’s Bazaar, wouldn’t publish it. She felt it was ugly.”
In 1969, Bob’s marriage to Terry’s mother busted up and he fell for a 17-year-old Anjelica Huston. After four years of living on the edge—in the Chelsea Hotel in New York and all over Europe—the relationship fizzled, as did his career.
“He wanted to do the pictures he wanted to do, and America was much stricter than Europe,” says Didier Malige, a distinguished hairstylist who frequently worked with Bob. “At a certain point, I think he didn’t want to make the effort anymore.”
Neither did his editors, who’d grown frustrated with Bob’s exacting standards and increasingly cruel behavior. When Buck’s roommate, Eva, went to a hippie commune and died while climbing a tree, Bob did something unthinkable. “He sent me a picture of Eva with a note saying, ‘Rock a bye baby, on the tree top,’” says Buck.
And he was hooked on speed, which had been prescribed to him by Max “Dr. Feelgood” Jacobson, John F. Kennedy’s “doctor.”
“In this business, it takes years to make a reputation and a few months to break it down,” says Bob’s former agent, Albert Koski. “Eventually, he got pushed aside.”
What few people knew was that Bob was also suffering from schizophrenia, which he’d been diagnosed with during his 20s. “We didn’t know what was wrong with him,” says Terry, though he admits seeing signs. “When I was eight, he called me one day and said, ‘I’m not your father. I let you have my name so you wouldn’t be a bastard, but your mother had an affair.’ Then he hung up.” Moments later, Terry and his mother phoned Bob to confront him. He professed to have no recollection of the conversation.
But, despite increasing turmoil, the father and son remained close. In the early Nineties, at the beginning of Terry’s career, the two even lived and worked together in a studio in the East Village, scraping by on money they earned from sittings with Interview and Allure.
Their meager surroundings had little effect on Bob’s ego. “Sometimes he passed me on the street, and he would say, ‘Bob is back,’ and then just keep walking,” remembers Malige. “He was always very proud.”
And temperamental. “When he decided to have a confrontation with someone, there was no stopping him,” says Terry. “Because it wasn’t rational.”
After a few years, Terry decided to break out on his own. One night he called Bob and instructed him not to show up for a Vibe magazine fashion shoot the next day. Dad didn’t handle the news well. “He said, ‘You can’t do it without me. I’ll never speak to you again.’”
But Terry did do it on his own, and his career took off. He scored a Katharine Hamnett campaign and assignments with ID and The Face. Bazaar began running his pictures, which had an overlit porno quality.
Bob’s career went in the opposite direction. “His pictures weren’t fresh anymore,” says Mellen. At one point, he pitched a screenplay called Dead Celebrities, which involved a guy who blows up a room filled with the world’s best-known people. No one bit.
Still, he eventually forgave his son and, in 2004, Terry convinced Greybull Press to publish a book of his father’s photographs and unpublished writings.
“We met Bob at the Rose Cafe in Venice, Calif.,” says the publisher, Lisa Eisner. “I’m not even sure he had teeth. He would eat half his sandwich, and save the rest for his dog. But he was really nice and he really wanted the book to happen. Then Terry sent us Bob’s autobiography. It was fantastic.”
Done as a series of disjointed revelations that jump around in time and seldom run more than 100 words each, it reads sort of like a cross between Rosie O’Donnell’s blog and Thus Spake Zarathustra.
“Circle jerks very often led to ‘I’ll do you if you do me.’ And I did,” goes the entry introducing Bob’s acknowledged bisexuality.
He also insulted lots of people in fashion, among them Steven Meisel (“Avedon without a d—k”), John Galliano (“He should be doing ballets and the circus”) and Italian Vogue editor Franca Sozzani (“Goldilocks on acid”). In an entry titled “1960-2003,” he wrote, “Harper’s Bazaar in the Sixties was still the only great fashion journal on the planet—the Bazaar that is published today is the worst.” He also laid into Tom Ford: “He is making a fortune on the backs of young assistant designers.”
“How nice of him,” says Ford, laughing. The designer then tells a story that might explain Bob’s beef with him. “He came to the Carlyle Hotel in the late Nineties to shoot me for some European magazine—either L’Uomo Vogue or Italian Vogue. He wanted the shots to be sexy and I had my shirt unbuttoned. At the end of the session, he climbed on the bed and started kissing me. I said, ‘No. No. There’ll be none of that.’ He got very upset and wouldn’t release the pictures. I never saw them.”
But Eisner’s interactions with Bob ran smoothly at first, leading her to believe the book might come off without a hitch. “He was saying goodbye to Venice. He was going to drive cross-country and move to Brooklyn,” she continues. “Then we went to meet him at Terry’s studio to finalize the deal and the crazy part came through. It was a person I didn’t even know. That was pretty much the last time we spoke to him.”
Shortly thereafter, Bob died. “It was either a heart attack or a stroke,” says Terry, who adopted his father’s dog and got a tattoo saying, “Dad, R.I.P.” He also revived the book, which he resold and edited himself.
He says he never considered taking out his father’s most vituperative remarks. “It’s almost flattering to have him do a rant on you.”
He’s also let go of any resentment he might have held toward his father, and given up many of Bob’s same vices. “Eventually, you learn to forgive,” says Terry, who in 2003 kicked a heroin addiction and has been sober since.
If there’s a major difference between father and son, it’s the tone of their photos. “Bob was more romantic,” says Malige. “Terry is about shock value.”
Ford, however, sees them as two sides of the same coin. “Terry’s my favorite photographer to work with now. You can’t scare him. You can’t scandalize him. Bob was the same way. He just wasn’t restricted by the boundaries of political correctness.”