Icons of Photography: Bob Richardson

Bob Richardson was born on January 3 1928, one of six children, into a Brooklyn Irish Catholic family. He grew up to become something of a symbol of the 1960s jet-set photographer. Fittingly (or ironically) for a man so often described as the photographer who brought the street to magazine fashion page, his father was an executive at Abercrombie & Fitch — the men’s haberdashers that was then a bastion of 5th Avenue conservatism but which at the turn of the 1990s reinvented itself as a street-brand for young men.

Richardson’s family was even more malfunctional than even he acknowledged. Both he and his older brother were schizophrenics. A younger brother disappeared. Richardson’s own daughter did, 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, self-pity, anger and flair for self-dramatisation. ‘I was born an innocent child and shall die an innocent old man,’ he said – not that truthfully, really. As he projected himself into his photographs, so he also projected parts of himself – his faults, mostly – on to others 

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. 

‘Bob was the first fashion photographer to expose women’s true complex emotions, on the pages of Harper’s Bazaar in the 1960s,’ said that magazine’s art director Ruth Ansel when he died. ‘He was attracted to beautiful, troubled women who were trying to liberate themselves from their confining pasts. Women with real lives and real emotions were his heroines. They were independent, depressed, cried, had sex, took drugs, had fights with their lovers and lived their lives like dark dramas in an Antonioni film. He was the only fashion photographer who made Avedon question his own work.’ 

Some have gone even further. ‘Avedon claims to have been the best photographer in the 1960s — bullshit — Bob Richardson was — despite or because of being insane and strung out on drugs.’ Who said that? Bob Richardson, naturally.

He lived a life before he took to photography. He studied graphic design, at the Pratt Institute. He served on the front line in Korea. He got out of the army by telling the doctor was homosexual. He lived in Greenwich Village, aspired to beatdom and – like that other great post-war suburban American artist, Andy Warhol – helped dress shop windows. 

He became a photographer in his mid-thirties – because a rich friend gave him a camera. He did six unhappy months as an assistant before striking out as his own man. Which was what kind of man exactly? Volatile, problematic, difficult – according to those who loved and respected him. ‘Confrontational and impossible to work with . . . his own worst enemy. It was Bob’s way or no way at all.’

He never really had a career. He started in New York where his early work was particularly shaped by four Manhattan editors, Ruth Ansel, Bea Feitler, Marvin Israel and Deborah Turbeville — who herself soon recast herself as a photographer. He soon moved on to European magazines, though. He said his years at French Vogue were ‘the best work experience’ he ever had. 

In his off-camera life, he bounced and bothered his way through assignments and marriages – three plus long affairs. He took up various drug habits, mainlining speed and sharing a ‘doctor’ with those other meteors of 1960s Manhattan, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams and Bob Dylan. In his own account of his drug-driven 1960s, he’d photograph all day, club half the night.

There were four suicide attempts – and sex with models at the end of sessions. He could easily have been the basis for the photographer in Blow-Up. He was, by his own account, fond of threesomes. Warhol’s superstar (and William Eggleston’s girlfriend) Viva, then known as Sue Hoffman, started out as his secretary. He also loved Jill Kennington, one of the models in Blow-Up. When her boyfriend found out, he shot up Richardson’s studio. ‘Sexual desire torments us every day,’ he said in 2003. He was seventy-five at the time.

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. ‘He was the first guy who said it was OK to not show the clothes,’ said Bruce Weber, a big admirer – as are Steven Meisel and Peter Lindbergh. Yet, as his sharpest editors realised, there was always a counterpoint in his photographs, between the clothes and the model’s inner life – or, at least, the one Richardson has created for her. His most famous picture 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.

In the 1970s, 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 really 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, sleeping there for two years. He went to jail, at least once. He slept on the beach and self-medicated. ‘My best friends were Ernest and Julio Gallo.’ He thought people on TV were talking to him. In time, he made his way back to life. ‘One day I realised the only voice I heard was my own.’ He drove a truck delivering flowers and telephone-sold the San Francisco Chronicle. He got by. 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 the New York gallery Staley-Wise in 1997. He was given assignments by Marie Claire, GQ, Italian Vogue. He tutored his son Terry – who became 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. When the New Yorker published a late-period profile of him, he dismissed it as a ‘hatchet job’. In all truth, his later photographs really weren’t that good or interesting.

He died on December 5, 2005 – in his sleep, of all things. Two years later, his son Terry produced something that had eluded his father all his life – a big, thick, inclusive collection of Richardson’s work. Oddly, while much of his best fashion work was in colour, in the book it is reduced to monochrome. And his name is spelled wrong on the credits page. Even in death, Bob Richardson is lessened, it seems.

© Peter Silverton 2021

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