Terry Richardson’s Dark Room

Was it an act of God? Photographer Terry Richardson considered this. It was last Thursday, the day before his first major New York show in years, and a flood in a vacant lot on the corner had nudged the Deitch Projects gallery in Soho off its very foundation. The gallery now looked to be condemned, and so-presumably by the order of a higher critic-was Mr. Richardson’s show Terry World.

Mr. Richardson knew how to dance the line when he was shooting for Gucci, Levi’s, Tommy Hilfiger and Nike. Carolina Herrera had again hired him to juice her upcoming ad campaign with the notion that something fantastically illicit was in store for anyone who bought her clothes. And who in fashion hadn’t heard about the spontaneous sexcapades that occasionally rattled Mr. Richardson’s sets? Terry World would be Mr. Richardson’s own reality show, but with the basic plot line varying little from episode to episode. Big on blowjobs, Mr. Richardson seemed to want everyone to know that he had more spume in him than a creature out of Melville.

A professionally grim Red Cross representative was on hand to relocate families from a cast-iron building next-door. Terry’s team asked if they could rescue the 800 trapped teddy bears wearing Mr. Richardson’s grinning mug that had been made up special.

“That’s an Office of Emergency Management question,” she said with a calculated perversity.

“If they could just get that hole filled,” Mr. Richardson was saying. A plaid flannel shirt flung over his shoulder, Mr. Richardson, 39, loped back to his loft-cum-studio on the Bowery to finish a meeting with Vice magazine co-founder Gavin McInnes.

“Terry was in deep shit with all of those first-year feminist types about eight months ago over at Deitch,” Mr. McInnes said gleefully. A freedom fighter for fringe culture, gallery owner Jeffrey Deitch represents the likes of Vanessa Beecroft, Mariko Mori and Barry McGee. But after some of his artists heard that he’d huddled with Mr. Richardson, they threatened to huff off to other galleries, calling Mr. Richardson’s work “misogynistic” and “exploitative,” said Mr. McInnes. Mr. Deitch didn’t need any Kleenex to wipe off his conscience: He stood his ground, and the handful of objectors in his employ were bought off with a month’s paid holiday.

“Terry is one of the most charismatic figures in downtown culture”-a mood-swinging planet where, Mr. Deitch noted, thanks to the political climate and the fallout from AIDS, “things got very repressed in the 90’s.”

Given the flood, it was decided that Terry World would relocate around the corner, on Wooster Street, in a space with the ambiance of a high-school gym. Mr. Richardson was relieved.

“How old is she?” said Gavin McInnes, reviewing a number of photos strewn across Mr. Richardson’s floor. “You think she’d mind if her tits are on display?”

The subject in question, Boonk, was a meth-head who finally flipped out and didn’t come around the studio anymore. “There’s something about her face,” said Mr. McInnes admiringly. This fragile blonde faun made her money in a practice known in her neck of Jersey City as boonking: She would negotiate an incredible sum of money for some preposterous sexual act inside a john’s Range Rover, then hurtle out the door before the performance could begin. Sometimes she didn’t make it. Mr. Richardson had captured her blackened panda eyes with one of the archaic point-and-shoot Yashicas he buys on eBay.

“Whatever happened to Boonk?” Mr. Richardson wondered aloud.

“She’s a born-again Christian and going to college,” said Mr. McInnes.

Autre temps, autre muses

Mr. Richardson was an early graduate of the happy-snappy school of shooters who often turned the camera on their posse. Mr. Richardson’s assistants Seth and Keiji may often be glimpsed in the margins of his work. They, too, affect that droopy convict mustache. Mr. Richardson calls them superstars.

His newest superstar was an intern with rock-chick hair now drying his dishes, a communications major at New York University named Alex, “a rich girl who wanted some culture,” said Mr. McInnes.

Alex assisted Mr. Richardson on the Miu Miu campaign, but soon she was involved in what is known around the studio as “documentary work.” When Mr. Richardson thought it might be cool to pose as the back end of a horse costume, it was Alex who went down below and urged him to the finish line. (The riding costume and crop she’d brought with her to work weren’t required after all.) Striving for something a little more ironic-Clintonian, Alex saw to Mr. Richardson under his desk. It was a cool summer job, and it looked like she might even earn some academic credit in the service of Art. The payoff came when Mr. Richardson would point to the pictures of her and call it some of his “most important work.”

“My therapist is going to see the show and tell me about it next week,” Mr. Richardson remarked. Like an athlete preparing for the big game, he hadn’t had sex or even masturbated for a solid three days before the opening.

And what an opening it was: Thousands had tumbleweeded through the under-air-conditioned exhibition. The Japanese snapped pictures of each other in front of Alex fellating the Terry Horse and Alex fellating Terry from the kitchen trash can. (“It’s Sesame Street !” Mr. Richardson explained with a chuckle.) A morose young hipster confessed he’d once been cast in a Richardson shoot: He was in his underpants and she was wrapped in plastic, but it felt way too porno, so he took off. At the time, he hadn’t really known who Mr. Richardson was. Clearly, there was the prodrome of regret.

Because of the unstable buildings nearby, the cobbled street was now cordoned off and had turned into an impromptu block party. Vincent Gallo was looking very Wild Bunch in a leather cap. Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, director Wes Anderson and designer Cynthia Rowley all paid their respects to Mr. Richardson, shyly observing things from the very edge of the crowd. Matt Gubler, the bright-eyed ephebe in Wes Anderson’s upcoming film, was performing magic tricks. People were buying “Model for Terry” T-shirts and Terry condoms, four for $5.

In his hand-stitched yellow Caraceni suit, Jeffrey Deitch was looking extravagantly pleased. In the show, Mr. Richardson’s glasses often come in for a XXX drenching, and Mr. Deitch had changed into his own prescription Terry glasses. “You think these would look good with cum on them?” Mr. Deitch joked with Mr. Richardson’s assistant, Melissa, who always wears a Virgin Mary medal around her neck. (“So gross!” she later complained.)

” Telly!” It was Charlie Brown, the Japanese karaoke maestro and publisher of the edgy magazine Dune . Mr. Brown had a cameo in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, and he was here with a copy of Taschen’s new Terry World coffee-table tome under his arm. Mr. Richardson signed it “Shaku-hachi!” (“Blowjob!”)

“I want Terry to sign my chest,” said Alex the intern, whose scrap of a dress was affixed to her bitty body with gobs of double-sided tape. A pair of policemen who wanted to see what the fuss was about inside were expelled back into the street. They were smiling.

“It’s comedy,” said Mr. Richardson merrily. It certainly wasn’t pornography, everyone kept insisting.

“A lot of it starts with me saying to a girl, ‘Do you want to do nudes?’ And they’re like, ‘I don’t want to be naked,'” said Mr. Richardson. “So I say, ‘ I’ll be naked and you take the pictures. You can have the camera. You can have the phallus.'” Everyone, including the assistants, was always armed with a camera. Mr. Richardson liked to say he wouldn’t ask someone to do anything he wouldn’t first do himself: “And since I’m in so many of the pictures, aren’t I objectifying myself a bit?”

But he wasn’t the one poking his head out of a garbage can or wearing that diamond “Slut” tiara.

“Some people think those images are funny and love them, and some people think they’re degrading to women. And those are great reactions to get, because the same people who are saying that are secretly taking dumps on people or like to drink piss or whatever,” said Mr. Richardson. “Everybody has their trips.” And no one in his pictures seemed to be suffering though the experience, certainly.

Mr. Richardson was by no means a porn junkie. He was more likely to be caught with Cocaine Cowboys, Christiane F. or Pink Flamingos in his VCR than Yank My Doodle, It’s a Dandy. The pile of Hustlers in the bathroom were there because a friend sent him a subscription. If he wanted to jerk off, he could always use the mirror, he said. He had never bought a porn movie-and anyway, too much of that stuff could scramble your circuitry.

“Once, a year ago, I’d been watching porn, and there was one where some guy was smacking this girl,” he remembered. “So I’m with someone for the first time and I just slap her. She slapped me back so hard she knocked my glasses off! I was like, ‘Whadja do that for?’ ‘Don’t fuckin’ slap me!’ she said. ‘I thought you’d like it,’ I said. She’s like, ‘No, I like to get choked.'”

Mr. Richardson was sure that other photographers had collections of Polaroids and pictures that were something like his. It’s just that no one had the guts to put them out there. Mr. Richardson’s own dimensions were the subject of much fascination among both sexes. A solicitation for women willing to take it all off on his Web site had yielded much mail from gay European men. Mr. Richardson would sometimes spot a candidate at the Starbucks on Spring Street, but his stylist friend Leslie Lessin would be the one to approach.

“I’ve had girls come up to me and say, ‘I want to shoot with Terry-he’s a bad boy,'” said Ms. Lessin, who has worked with porn’s big bang star, Houston. In his photographs, Mr. Richardson’s penis has been caressed by the mouths of she-males in a Brazilian whorehouse, and he allowed that he’d also “been inside of” hard-core’s empress dowager, Vanessa del Rio. But there were the Pollyannas, too, who would arrive for a simple portrait and be reaching down Mr. Richardson’s pants by the end of the shoot, unintimidated by the Bruce Lee nunchakus hanging over his bed.

Recently Mr. Richardson split with his on-and-off girlfriend of two years, Elite model Susan Eldridge. He’d been faithful, in his fashion: The pretty young flings offering blowjobs at the office were something Ms. Eldridge understood to be part of his job description.

The day after the show, Mr. Richardson was sitting around his apartment, having a smoke and mulling the why of it. Perhaps the show was about his finally getting clean.

His favorite drug had been heroin-snorting it, smoking it. He also drank. “Christmas Day three years ago,” he said, “I was here doing ten bags of heroin, washing down a bunch of Valiums with a bottle of vodka and going to bed with a suit on by myself, just being like, ‘Please don’t wake up,’ and then waking up and going: ‘Fuck- I’m still here!'”

Friends staged an intervention.

“I don’t think I’d had sex without being drunk or stoned in almost my whole life,” he said. “All of a sudden, it was like, ‘Wow-sex! This is incredible!'”

Mr. Richardson’s father Bob was a well-regarded photographer-dude of the 60’s. When Terry was 4, his father left his mother for Anjelica Huston, then 17. Terry’s mother moved on to Jimi Hendrix, Kris Kristofferson and Keith Richards. When Mr. Richardson was 9, she was coming to pick him up from his child psychiatrist (“I was just really angry and hyper”) and a telephone truck rear-ended her Volkswagen.

“When she came home, she was in diapers,” he said. “It was very heavy. By the time I was 11, I was getting high every day on weed-just checking out, basically.”

A redhead rang up from downstairs. She was dropping off Gummi Bears for Mr. Richardson. He plopped one in his mouth. “I feel like a lot of the women I’ve dated have been the same kind of person,” he said. “I’ve been through a lot of relationships that were really just girls cheating on me or being quite sadistic. Because of this accident, my mother couldn’t walk, and she was just very ill-tempered all the time-always screaming and yelling and throwing things at me and, like, totally unavailable as a mother.” Young Terry stopped seeing his shrink, and the man jumped out his office window six months later. Two years ago, Mr. Richardson had a pensive image of himself as a child tattooed on his chest.

Terry was 10 when his father Bob started to bottom out; since then, Bob Richardson’s life has been punctuated by repeated comebacks and homelessness. (Today, Terry’s father lives in Venice Beach off Social Security and has been working on his memoirs.) Terry did it up on the SoCal punk scene and played bass guitar in several garage bands. He started taking his own pictures and assisting other photographers. He lived on Ramen noodles. In 1991, his father suggested they work together in New York as a team.

“It was comedy,” said Mr. Richardson. “We’d be in Miami shooting beauty pictures for some magazine, and my dad would be yelling at the editor: ‘Terry’s going to do what he wants-and if you’re going to get in the way, we’re going to get on a plane and go home!’ And we were just so broke, I was like, ‘ Noooo , we’re in a hotel ! It’s free food and free drinks and I want to stay!’ Dad was really into tantrums and trying to emotionally devastate people. The 60’s was a different time. You could get away with these incredible scenes.”

For a spell, his dad was living in Terry’s studio apartment. “And I would just go to sleep on people’s couches every night, because I just couldn’t handle sleeping in a bed with my dad every night,” Mr. Richardson said. “I’d come home and he’d be wearing my clothes and hanging out with my friends.”

The Richardsons had scored a job for Vibe magazine, but Terry told his dad that he wanted to go it alone. His father hung up on him. But the story won an award, and Terry’s career took flight.

Mr. Richardson married model Nikki Uberti, and he compares their relationship to Sid and Nancy, Kurt and Courtney. “We were together three months and we went to City Hall, and I was high as a kite and everyone was saying ‘Don’t get married,’ and then we fought the whole time and after six months we almost got it annulled, and you know there were great moments,” he said in a torrent. When Ms. Uberti was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 29, Mr. Richardson asked for a divorce-or so the oft-repeated story goes.

“I know people say, ‘He’s a heartless cad; his wife got cancer and he took off with Shalom or some model’-which is completely not the truth,” Mr. Richardson said. “We’d basically separated and she was diagnosed, and I stayed with her and went back and forth, but I was trying to get clean, and I couldn’t get clean and stay in that house. I would just wake up and start drinking and taking pills. And she had been throwing me out forever anyway.”

Faux Pas is a short film Ms. Uberti made about their relationship, starring cats and stuffed animals. Mr. Richardson said he’d love to see it, only they no longer speak.

Many a hotel room has suffered at Mr. Richardson’s hands. “To go from, like, not having anything to flying on the Concorde and just being a lunatic …. ” he said. “I was working on a job with Polly Mellen, and she was just looking at me with tears in her eyes, saying: ‘You don’t have to do the same thing as your father. You’re going to destroy everything.'”

Now people were calling him the heir to Helmut Newton. Famous people were always a kick, and he considered himself one, too (“Terry Richardson is an international celebrity,” reads the first line of his biography on the “only official Terry Richardson website”-as if there were other aspirants to that role). “It’s nice to get attention,” Mr. Richardson said. He enjoyed being recognized on the street. Warhol had his wig, said Mr. Richardson, and he had his Confederate facial hair, Charles Manson T-shirts and 70’s sit-com glasses. “Sometimes I think I’m turning into a caricature of myself,” said Mr. Richardson, who was selling T-shirts he had printed with a caricature of himself.

Someone offered him a million dollars to make an arty sex film. While he says he loved his buddy Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny (“Some great heart-breaking moments, and the blowjob is awesome”), this is not what he wanted to do. “I wanted to make something really dark and heartbreaking and beautiful and funny that was more than penetration,” he said. He’s co-written a screenplay called Son of a Bitch , about a kid whose shyster father resurfaces in his life at 18, only to wreak havoc on his life.

“The whole sex thing-I’m kind of bottomed out on it,” said Mr. Richardson. “Eventually I would just like to have kids and go into a different kind of place.”

Mr. Richardson had a little side project that had been going on for years called “Breaking in the Carpet.” As he explained: “I have hundreds of images of me just coming on different rugs in different hotel rooms.” He suspected he’d jacked off at every room in the Marmont, he said. But he hadn’t taken one of these pictures in almost two years. Or perhaps he just didn’t want his Marmont guest privileges revoked.

He was now thinking he might want to get into what he called “real photography,” as opposed to lo-fi snapshots. “A whole other part of me is that beautiful, romantic kind of picture I do, too,” he said.

Mr. Richardson’s post-show ramble seemed to sound an epitaph for yet another phase he’d survived. “The people who don’t like me will hate me more, and the people who do like me will be like, ‘There’s Terry-he went all the way. Cool.'”