Whether or not you have heard of him, you’ve probably has seen his work. From Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar to H&M and American Apparel, his white-background-with-hard-direct-flash-portraits has been the iconic look of the recent times. Pay attention the next time you go shopping, and just realize just how many billboards and ads are shot clean, on a white background, with very little shadow. The Terry Richardson look, then, has defined this generation of fashion photography.
In a month long exposé, I will delve into “Terry’s World,” the craft behind his work, and learn how to shoot models in his style. He is the first mega-pro photographer to be featured, discussed, and analyzed here at iLHP and it’s strangely fitting because people either love or hate him and his work, literally.
Hack or Genius?
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Photographers, professional or amateur but mostly amateur, are highly polarized about his work. To use comedian Bill Burr’s expression, “naysayers with heavy jowls” criticize his point-and-shoot style as amateurish, unsophisticated, or even tacky (classic argument is that “my four-year old niece can do it,” but I’ve yet to see a four your old exhibit at the MET). Throw a question like “Is Terry Richardson any good?” onto an online forum and watch the feces fly like a good ol’ Canon v. Nikon debate. But we’ve all heard this before. Jackson Pollock’s talentless splatter paintings, I.M. Pei’s monstrous Louvre glass pyramids, or even Pablo Picasso’s amateurish cubism. Good art is sure to stir some controversy. Art is supposed to make you feel something.
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Another kind of controversy surrounding Terry Richardson is more insidious. Models have accused Richardson of pressuring them into sex and sexual assault law suits have been filed before. None of this is excusable nor especially surprising. His work is often sexually explicit, especially his earlier work when he was less famous, where it bordered on pornographic (another debate would be “Is pornography art?”). He works with gorgeous young models all day, he looks like a creepy old dude, he likes to be called Uncle Terry, and it’s no secret that he does have sex with them. Love him or hate him, no one can deny the impact he’s had on the fashion world. So for this article, let’s suspend the judgment on his character and focus on his art. Conan O’Brien is probably right, it’s probably the creepy glasses.
The Terry Richardson Look
Much of his works are Lo-Fi snapshots. He breaks the traditional rules. Soft lighting? Nope. Harsh direct lighting. Complex light setup? Usually not. Single flash and the shadows hug the model. He famously showed up to fashion photo shoots with a Yashica T4 point & shoot camera, because “his eyes were really bad and [he] had a hard time focusing cameras” (he’s moved onto the Panasonic GF1 digital p&s nowadays).
He also uses his left eye for the viewfinder, which covers up his face behind the camera and that nobody seems to have talked about. But the core of his genius, like most good portrait photographers, is his ability to connect with the model. His shots themselves are candid, raw, and consistent. You can easily imitate the look with the proper setup but to replicate the feeling in his images is a whole different matter. I think Terry puts it best in his own words for an interview for Belvedere Vodka:
“There’s that whole thing of putting objects in this really rich, expensive, fancy looking setting or lighting or whatever. But I think stuff like that, unless it’s done really well, just looks old fashioned and kind of boring. I think my aesthetic, and others with a similar kind of thing, is much more immediate and it has an energy to it.” – Terry Richardson
In Part 2 of this series, I will discuss Terry’s setup and the $137 worth of gear I bought for the Sony A7 to explore his type of photography. Stay tuned.