Bob Richardson Profile
Bob Richardson was born in 1928, into a Brooklyn Irish Catholic family that was maybe even more malfunctional than even he acknowledged. Both he and his older brother were schizophrenics. A younger brother disappeared. A daughter, too.
‘I have always photographed loneliness because that is my life.’
He took that loneliness to, of all places, fashion photography. He brought along his hurt, despair and anger, too — and his taste for self-dramatisation.
He made his name in the 1960s, taking pictures of the new, modern clothes and — more importantly, as far as he was concerned — the new thoughts and doubts that went with them. In their own, often addled way, he and his photographs struggled with women’s new place in the world as much as, say, Diane Arbus’s.
He lived a life before he took to photography. He studied graphic design. He served on the front line in Korea. He lived in Greenwich Village, aspired to beatdom and helped dress shop windows.
He became a photographer because a rich friend gave him a camera. He did six unhappy months as an assistant before striking out on his own. That’s what his life was like. Volatile, problematic, confrontational, impossible to work with — according to those who loved and respected him.
He never really had a career. He started in New York but soon moved on to European magazines. He bounced and bothered his way through assignments and marriages — three plus long affairs. Various drug habits. Four suicide attempts. Sex with the models at the end of sessions. He could easily have been the basis for the photographer in Blow Up.
So spectacular were his fault-lines that it’s hard to focus on his work rather than his life. But his pictures were genuinely revolutionary, bringing life, drama and emotion to the stale rooms of fashion photography. They are loud but never shouty. They burst from their framing. Rarely do they manage to contain or constrain a whole body. Even if it’s only the top of a haircut or half a hand, something is always cropped out.
It’s generally said that the clothes are quite incidental in his pictures. Yet, as his sharpest editors realised, there is always a counterpoint between the clothes and the model’s inner life — or, at least, the one Richardson has created for her.
The picture that he’s famous for was taken on a beach in Greece — as part of a 16-page feature for French Vogue.
A model, Donna Mitchell, is crying — getting models to cry was one of his specialities. The emotion looks real. But the clothes look cool, too. As do the sea and the hills — he had a real, if underacknowledged feel for landscape. He was also a wonderful photographer of children.
His pictures of them are both sweet and truthful — mirror images of himself, he said.
He spent a four year stretch with Anjelica Huston, when she was a teenager and he was in his early forties. They smoked opium and lived in the Chelsea Hotel.
She slashed her wrists. He took pictures of her that shaped her life and concreted his reputation. She paid the bills. ‘I didn’t know the ashtrays were talking to him at the time,’ she later said.
Then he fell off the edge, in the early 1980s. His schizophrenia took him. ‘A dark terrifying world welcomed me.’
He fled to the West Coast, ending up on the street and, at least once, in jail.
He slept on the beach and self-medicated. ‘My best friends were Ernest and Julio Gallo.’ None of his friends and colleagues knew what had become of him. Not all of them cared.
He had something of a second act, though, after Martin Harrison tracked him down for Appearances, his 1991 book on fashion photography.
He moved back into the world. He had a retrospective at Staley Wise in 1997. He got assignments, for Marie Claire, GQ, Italian Vogue. He tutored his son Terry — who has become the wealthy and feted photographer that his more talented father dreamed of being. His arrogance and paranoia still stalked him, though. ‘I am — as usual — flat broke and someone is making money from my talent,’ he wrote.
He died in 2005 — in his sleep, of all things. Two years later, Terry produced something that had eluded his father all his life — a big, thick, inclusive collection of his work. Richardson’s name was spelled wrong on the credits page.
There is no website featuring Bob's work however you can see his son's work at www.terryrichardson.com
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