Purple Magazine
— F/W 2008 issue 10

Terry Richardson’s Life Story Episode 1


From birth to THE AGE OF FOUR

OLIVIER ZAHM — How did your parents meet?
TERRY RICHARDSONThey met at the Copacabana nightclub in New York. My mom was in a Broadway production of Bye Bye Birdie with Dick Van Dyke, but she was also a chorus girl at the Copacabana, dancing a routine. They’d have a comedian, someone would sing, and then girls came out and danced. My dad was there one night with friends, saw her, and started talking to her. I think it was in the early ’60s – ’60 or ’61. 

OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s the story your family passed down – that they fell in love at first sight?
TERRY RICHARDSON That they started dating, fell in love, and moved right in. It went very fast.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Have you seen a picture of your mother from that time?
TERRY RICHARDSON — Yeah. Black and white. I re-photographed some of the pictures in her house, some from when she was a dancer. She looked like Madonna. The hair was up and she had tights on. She had kind of blonde hair. Her real name was Norma. My step-dad changed it to Annie later on. But it was Norma Kessler, a nice Jewish girl from Sunnyside, Queens. Glamorous name, right? She went from being Norma Kessler to being Norma Richardson. Norma, as in Norma Kamila, the designer. I’ve never met another person named Norma. Not a very popular name. Norma Kessler and Norma Kamila — there you go. My grandfather was a truck driver and my grandmother was a beautician. She worked in a beauty parlor as a hairdresser. My mom went to City College and then wanted to be a dancer and a singer-actress. She came over the bridge and started working in New York at night. She had a job in a coffee shop in the Village, Café Figaro on Bleecker Street. Hanging out with beatniks. Part of the whole late ’50s jazz scene – smoking reefer, and hanging out in the village. She was very cool. I know she dated Jerry Mulligan. I think he was a jazz trumpet guy, or maybe a saxophone guy. [ed: Baritone saxophonist] A white dude. But later she hung out with Jimi Hendrix and all those people. She told me a funny story once about bringing a black guy she was dating in high school home, about how my grandparents freaked out. They had a nervous breakdown. The whole apartment building got upset. It was taboo to mix.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Even in the universities?
TERRY RICHARDSON Not in New York, but in the South, yes. But my mom was just always very radically free.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Was she beautiful?
TERRY RICHARDSON Yeah, ol’ Norma Kessler was a real looker! The thing was, my mom was radical but my dad was a very conservative guy, even if he was insane. My dad was raised on Long Island. His father worked at Abercrombie & Fitch. Very upper-middle class, sheltered, and suburban. My dad dressed preppy — button down shirts, loafers, and jeans. After he met my mom, the whole ’60’s thing hit, with the long hair and the cowboy hats and the scarves. Part of that was my mom’s influence, but it was also just the times. Everybody changed. Overnight, people looked different. From 1958 to ’68, it was a whole different thing.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It was the same with my parents. When they got married they were really bourgeois and traditional. Then at the beginning of the ’60s they totally changed.
TERRY RICHARDSON A lot of people did. Look at artists, bands, or actors. Look at famous movie stars in the late ’60s and early ’70s, with their hair and their mustaches and their scarves. Like Warren Beatty. Even if they didn’t go that far out, they went out a little bit.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Was it each of your parent’s first serious love?
TERRY RICHARDSON Well, my dad was married before — like ’57, or something, so when my mom met him he was either divorced or going through the divorce. I have a half-sister. She’s seven or eight years older than I am. I’ve only met her two or three times in my life. I keep meaning to find her, but I just haven’t. I have to hire someone to find her. I’m not even sure she knows that our dad has passed away. If I walked by her on the street, I wouldn’t recognize her. The last time I saw her was over 10 years ago. I’d like to find her. I guess on the Internet there must be a way to find people right? Track them down?

OLIVIER ZAHM — There must be, this being America. In Europe families tend to stay in contact more — the situation where you have to track down someone from your family rarely occurs.
TERRY RICHARDSON Well, people do become estranged in America. Families just become separated, and don’t connect afterwards. On my father’s side I have uncles and cousins — a whole family — I don’t even know. I’d like to find them. It’d be interesting to meet and talk with them. But I met my half-sister when I was a little kid, like three or four years old, and then once again after that. We wrote letters when I was 15. I was with my father once when she called him in New York. In the early ’90’s she came and visited a few times, but I haven’t seen her since ’94 or ’95, something like that. It’s been a long time. I should try to find her. It’s the right thing to do. I think my mom said that she bailed my dad out of jail once because he didn’t pay child support. Anyway, my parents eventually moved in together and my dad started working for magazines. My mom basically gave up acting to give all her attention to him. When he got an assignment they would discuss it all night. He would bounce everything off of her.

OLIVIER ZAHM — She was involved in his process of making pictures?
TERRY RICHARDSON — Yeah, they’d just drink wine and smoke a joint, and he would be like, “How do I shoot this girl? How do I do this story?” They’d spend hours talking about it. Bouncing ideas around. I saw a documentary about Helmut [Newton] and June, and they did the same thing. Everything was about what he was trying to do, and how she helped him. My mom did that for my dad. She didn’t really have an independent career. It was all about launching his career and making him successful. He started working at Bazaar with Marvin Israel, who came in after Alexey Brodovitch. Israel was the art director there for a while, and an eccentric character. He gave my dad an assignment to take a picture, and when he saw it he said to him, Ok, I want you to do it again, but this time I want you to photograph yourself. Don’t literally take a picture of yourself, but make it a self-portrait. Make it of another person, but make it a self-portrait. Don’t take a picture you think I want to see, but take a picture that’s you. Photograph yourself.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Photograph yourself through another person.
TERRY RICHARDSON — Yeah. That’s what most photographers do. The key to photography is to put yourself in the picture without physically putting yourself in it. In my case, I sometimes do physically put myself in the picture. It’s basically making every image you do a self-portrait. This really clicked for my dad. He realized all his feelings, his persona, and his emotions — all the things he could put into the images. That’s why I think so many of my dad’s pictures are so emotionally intense. The mood is so heavy you can feel it. The image isn’t necessarily about the model’s true feelings, it’s about my father’s true feelings, conveyed through the photograph. Which I think is really difficult to do. He got inside of them, was able to put himself in them. So the image emanates his feelings and it’s heartbreaking — or heartbreakingly beautiful — and powerful and moving. They weren’t snapshots. They were heavily directed, worked on, and thought through, for photographs of that period.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It helped your father to find his identity as a photographer.
TERRY RICHARDSON — Yeah, it made sense to him. Marvin Israel was a mentor. My dad went from doing that one picture to doing stories for them, and building a whole career. In the ’90s, The Face did that, and I’m sure you’ve started people off by showing their stuff in Purple. You give a new photographer a chance to do something, to have a voice. You mentor them, and talk to them. My dad went to Bazaar and worked with Marvin Israel at just the right moment. Some of those early Bazaar stories are a little bit fashion-y, but some of the images are really powerful and beautiful; you really feel a sense of him in there.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Did your mom inspire and push him?
TERRY RICHARDSON — Yes, she was with him all the time, checking everything in New York out. Discussing images, going to museums and films by Antonioni and Godard. My dad was strongly influenced by Antonioni, by the image of Monica Vitti crying on the beach in L’Avventura, for example, the girl with her running make-up. They looked at art, they went to openings, they went to parties, they looked at films, they studied things, they read books — they immersed themselves in it. All to help launch my father’s career.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So your mother was an artist, in fact, and really pushed your father in an artistic direction?
TERRY RICHARDSON Yeah, she was the catalyst. He had this thing, but he didn’t have a way of expressing it until he met my mom. Then he was able to express it and get it out. We all have this stuff, but to tap into it you need to find a person who inspires you.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you know anything about your father’s first wife?
TERRY RICHARDSON I met her once, when I went to go meet my half-sister. I can’t remember what she did, but I know she drank a lot. Once my dad and her split up they never spoke. Maybe there was a little contact with his daughter, but not with his ex-wife.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Did he suffer over losing his daughter?
TERRY RICHARDSON I don’t know. I know he really wanted a boy. Not that he didn’t care about his daughter. But he wanted a boy; that’s what he was interested in.

OLIVIER ZAHM — He wanted a little Terry.
TERRY RICHARDSON — Little Terry, yeah. I never really saw my half-sister; she just didn’t come around. Normally you would have summer holidays with both your kids, but she was never around. I don’t know if his first wife didn’t want her to see her dad and kept her away. That might have been part of it. I need to do more research into it. I’m curious about it all.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Was it tough for your parents at first, just surviving?
TERRY RICHARDSON Well, my mom might have done some waitressing, but my dad started working for Bazaar around ’61, ’62, or ’63, contributing a lot. I think it went pretty quick once he got those first few pictures in, and did the story. Back then in New York, if you were working for Harper’s Bazaar, you got a lot of other work. You immediately got advertising and things because you worked for them. Bazaar and Vogue were the big ones.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Your dad was already taking photographs in the late ’50s, right?
TERRY RICHARDSON — Yeah. I think someone had given him a camera, and he started taking pictures. But it was very early. I don’t think he was really working for magazines or anyone yet, as far as I know. He got a camera, he assisted a little bit, and within a year or two he was working for Bazaar. But he didn’t pick up a camera until he was 30 or something. He started a little late. I was born in ’65. He was born in ’28. So yeah, in ’65 he was already pushing 40.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you remember your father speaking of other photographers? Of his friends or other artists he knew?
TERRY RICHARDSON — There was a community of people who were all friendly with one another. He was friendly with the photographer Louis Faurer, who was a reportage guy, a street photographer, who also worked for magazines. He loved Louis, and was a good friend of his. He met Diane Arbus a few times.

OLIVIER ZAHM — This period was really the beginning of modern fashion photography.
TERRY RICHARDSON Yes, it was. He knew David Bailey, and Helmut Newton, and all those people. He told me that there was a knock at the door of his studio one day, and when he opened it, there was Richard Avedon, who just wanted to come down and meet the person who was taking all these great pictures. Just to say hello. He talked with my dad for a minute and then left. You forget how fucking powerful Avedon was. It should always be like that. But now times are so fucking different. Avedon started in the ’50s, when he was 19 or 20, shooting for Vogue. He was a star when he was a kid. So he was in his 30s in the ’60s. My dad knew Jimmy Moore — “Hiro” — a little bit. They would just bump into each other. Marvin Israel had a photography workshop, and I think my dad went to it and met other photographers.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Did your father have his own studio?
TERRY RICHARDSON Yes, in his apartment. There was a wall in the middle. They lived on one side and worked on the other. Similar to my place now. I think it was on 56th Street and 8th or 10th Avenues. Above Hell’s Kitchen. Not downtown, uptown. Anyway, my parents got married and after maybe three years my mom got pregnant.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And you arrived.
TERRY RICHARDSON — Yeah, I arrived.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you think your parents were ready to welcome a child into their lifestyle?
TERRY RICHARDSON — At that time, everyone — Kennedy, the Beatles, all the Warhol people — was going to see this doctor, Doctor Jake. He would shoot you up with speed. He’s in all the books about the Warhol people. He had an office on the Upper East Side. He called them vitamin shots, but he put methamphetamine in them. All kinds of celebrities went to get these magic shots. He ended up losing his license. He got everyone addicted to speed. Edie Sedgwick went there all the time, and so did politicians, musicians, actors, lawyers, and society people. He would even give you the stuff to shoot yourself up. The Beatles wrote the song “Doctor Robert” based on him. People would come in twice a day, because it only lasted about eight hours. If doctors today gave their patients cocaine shots, people would go to them, too. But there have always been doctors like him, who give out drugs. He was basically a drug dealer.


OLIVIER ZAHM — A chic drug dealer. 
TERRY RICHARDSON — My dad started going there a lot around that time, and got into shooting speed. He really fucking got into it. Started to do drugs. A lot of people became junkies from going to see that doctor.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Did your mother go, too?
TERRY RICHARDSON — Yes, both of them went. They would go before they went to work. It would be packed. Everyone would go in before work, get a shot, and feel great all day — high and speedy.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I heard your birth was kind of wild.
TERRY RICHARDSON — Yeah. My mom told me that when she was about to go into labor my dad just disappeared. She was like, “I’m going to have a baby!” But my dad freaked out and couldn’t deal with it, so my mom got in a cab and went to the hospital by herself.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s pretty serious.
TERRY RICHARDSON — Yeah. I don’t know if he was high or if he just ran off. He just couldn’t deal with it. I have this crazy vision of being in the taxi, of looking around the taxi, before I was born. It’s a very clear image.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Maybe your mother was so scared of the situation that she transferred this memory to you.
TERRY RICHARDSON — Yeah, maybe. I was born at 5:30 in the morning, so it must have been real early, like around 4am. It was still dark out when she got to the hospital.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And you remember this?
TERRY RICHARDSON Yeah. Being in the womb, but looking around the back of the taxi. It’s such a weird thought, and it’s stuck with me for so long. My mom made it to the hospital and gave birth to me. Then my dad showed up and was like, “I knew it was going to be a boy.” They named me Terrance. No middle name.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Your father must have been happy, having a boy. Did he tell you why he wanted one so badly?
TERRY RICHARDSON No. I guess a lot of times men want to have boys and women want to have girls. He just wanted a boy more than a girl. Felt more of a connection. I was born in August, 1965. My dad was still working a lot then. My mom and dad told me great stories about how they would have a shot set up, and my dad would shoot himself up with speed in another room, have the rush, walk out, shoot half a roll of film, and then disappear again. He got into this whole star trip. In the beginning he would talk to the model, but when the clients were there, he would just make this entrance, say hi, shoot half a roll, or until he thought he got it, and then walk out. Did this whole performance. Some days he did hang out and take more pictures, obviously, but that was his thing — the performance, doing a number on people. Being a total star. Create the image, not hang out with everybody all day.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That was totally crazy for that time, to just show up, shoot half a roll, and leave.
TERRY RICHARDSON Yeah. Everyone would be like, “OOOOH!” He freaked everybody out. But it worked because nobody worked like that. He made this crazy impression on people. “His Highness is gracing us with his presence.” They would put down a line of tape in the studio and my mom would tell them, “When Bob is shooting, you cannot cross this line.” People would get scared and freak out. Obviously there were people he worked with whom he respected, communicated and collaborated with, and had a good relationship with. But a lot of the time, it was like, “You hired me, so now just let me do my job, and don’t get in the way.” He would lock editors in closets or changing rooms. Make them cry. Throw them off shoots.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Really? That’s dramatic, to say the least. 
TERRY RICHARDSON  What was that famous Polly Melon [editor of Harper’s Bazaar] story? He was working with her. I forget who they were working for — Vogue, maybe. My Dad always had a sense of style. He knew what he liked and how clothes should be put together. When he photographed someone, he wanted it to be done how he would do it. The way how the hat or the scarf went was how he would do it. So then it would look like him. Even when he shot women.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Did he collaborate with stylists?
TERRY RICHARDSON — Yeah, because for him it was a fashion image. Every little detail in the picture was important. So, the Polly Melon story: they’re doing a shoot, and he says something like, “What the fuck are you doing? You think you know more than I do?” I don’t know what he said exactly, but he got her really upset. And she says, “Teach me, Bob! Teach me!” [Laughs] She told me that story. But he wasn’t just showing up and banging out a fashion image: it was life or fucking death. He put everything he had into it. In the beginning, at least.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But he really did respect the fashion world, right?
TERRY RICHARDSON Completely. That’s what he did. He had total respect. He was a fashion photographer, purely. So every detail, the clothes, everything, had to be just right. He always told me that at the end of the day, if something goes wrong, it’s your fault. Nobody’s going to blame the editor, nobody’s going to blame the model, and nobody’s going to blame the magazine. They’re going to blame the photographer. I talked to Helmut Newton by the swimming pool at the Chateau once, and I said people always want to run pictures because of the credit, even if they’re really bad pictures. He told me to always demand a re-shoot. If they don’t give you a re-shoot, throw the pictures in the garbage. Why would you hand in a picture that you don’t like? Why? How does it make you feel when you do that? You feel terrible. That’s what he said. Same thing with my dad. They would want the pictures and my dad would say, “I need to re-shoot them, or you don’t get them.” And they’d said, “But it’s Armani!” Or, “It’s Gucci! We have to have the credit!” But he’d re-shoot it. He would go off and do one more picture if he had to. He just wouldn’t send it in if he didn’t get the shot. But he usually got it. He used to say to the magazine, “Why would you want to publish a bad picture?” And they’d say, “Well, we don’t care. We need it for the credit.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — The credit was more important…
TERRY RICHARDSON Than the image.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Even back in the ’70s?
TERRY RICHARDSON — Yeah, because there was always advertising, right? Look at magazines, they are filled with ads. People pay a lot of money for them. They want to see their outfits. Maybe more so now, because there’s more money involved, and more competition.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Your dad really shot quickly, didn’t he?
TERRY RICHARDSON — Very quickly. And always he used a Nikon 35mm. Most photographers used big-format cameras like Hasselblads, or whatever. My dad always used a 35mm.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And he lived in the studio.
TERRY RICHARDSON — Exactly, yeah. In New York. Then in ’66, when I was about a year old, we moved to Paris. Someone told him he should go to Paris, to Europe, and take pictures.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And work for a European magazine?
TERRY RICHARDSON Yes, for French Vogue, basically. But even advertising people said he should be working in Europe. “Get out of New York. Go to Paris.” So we got rid of the apartment and moved.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s a serious decision to take, with a one-year-old baby.
TERRY RICHARDSON — I know. And at this time, my mom wasn’t working. She was taking care of me. We put our stuff in a trunk and took a boat to Paris. My dad showed up dressed like a cowboy, with a big cowboy hat. His whole thing was, “I’m going to freak these fucking French people out. I’m a fucking American cowboy coming to Paris. I’m the new fucking sheriff in town.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — He shot for French Vogue?
TERRY RICHARDSON — Vogue, yeah. The cowboy coming in with his Nikons, ready to shoot. He had long hair by then, a scarf, a big fucking Spanish cowboy hat, and boots. My mom wore fringe coats. I had long hair, but was still a baby. They were superstars, so when they walked into the offices at French Vogue, it was like, “Oh, my God.” Six foot two in cowboy boots and a cowboy hat. Really tall and skinny. His thing was always that if you wanted to be treated like a star, you acted like a fucking star. You did a performance on people. He was always into being larger than life, being a superstar. He went to Paris and started doing the Donna Mitchell stories. His work really fucking opened up. — He wasn’t rejected by Parisians, then? — No, embraced. Absolutely.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Great. Two or three years before then, he might have been totally rejected.
TERRY RICHARDSON Totally, yeah. It was just the right time. Helmut was around starting to do stuff. My parents found a really nice apartment. I remember playing on the swings in the Luxembourg gardens. I had an Irish nanny with red hair. She’d disappear with me every day. They didn’t know where she went. One day they followed her to an apartment. She would go there every day and fuck her lover, with me there on the couch. So they got rid of her. Not cool for the kid. I also remember watching Nanouse [ed: Nounours], the show with the bear. It was my favorite, because my first language was French. We stayed in Paris until I was four. I remember going to see the French production of Hair, the hippie musical, with my mom. I remember there were naked people on stage, a radical thing. My mom was friendly with some people in it. My dad stuck me in a lot of his pictures. We went to Greece and I was in some of the pictures he took there.

OLIVIER ZAHM — When a photographer traveled with a model in your father’s day, it was a real trip — a week or ten days, often with hardly any telephone access.
TERRY RICHARDSON No Internet, no cell phones. You went to work and made images. It’s funny. Now it’s so hard to get away. Everybody’s on their Blackberrys all day long. Nobody’s in the moment. Nobody’s thinking about what the fuck they’re doing. Everybody’s living in the future.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Planning the next step.
TERRY RICHARDSON — The next job. They’re on a shoot and all they do all day is make phone calls about the shoots they have coming up. They’re not focusing or paying attention to what they’re doing. Hairdressers, everybody — talking on the phone. I’ll be like, “Fucking get on set!” They’re worrying about next week, the next booking. They’ve already got this gig, so they don’t care about it. Some people do. It’s inspiring to think about how it used to be, to really collaborate, and spend three or four days shooting. Now you do a story in a day. It’s crazy. Everything is so immediate and fast. My style has always been very fast and spontaneous, but sometimes I get to shoot a girl or someone I really like, and I know if we were together for three or four days working, just taking our time, it would be so incredible. Now everything is rushed. Back then, they’d go away and really be together. No cell phone, no TV, no DVD laptop computer. Nothing to do but work and really get to know one another.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Did your parents enjoy the three or four years they spent in Paris?
TERRY RICHARDSON Yeah. They went to parties. Hung out a bit with the Rolling Stones, or with Keith Richards. It was that whole group of people — actors, musicians. They would go to London for parties. Jet-setting around.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Taking a lot of drugs?
TERRY RICHARDSON Lots of drugs, yeah. We went to Morocco one time, when I was three. We went to a guy who made sandals, and he put hashish in the sandals. It was so hot! I remember my dad smoked so much hash he passed out. He fell over in the street and had to be helped back to the hotel. I won’t ever forget that. We went back to the hotel and while my dad slept my mom took me to the beach. I swam every day.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, it was very jet-set — Paris, Morocco, London, Greece…
TERRY RICHARDSON The whole European thing. My dad was working all the time. I know he was doing a lot of drugs. And I guess he was schizophrenic, and always battling with it. I know one time in Paris my mom went out and he locked the door and slit his wrists. I remember seeing him. I have visions of him in a room, all bloody…

OLIVIER ZAHM — That must have been very scary.
TERRY RICHARDSON Yeah. When you’re a kid and one of your parents tries to kill themselves, what does that say to you? It’s heavy. He locked the door and my mom had to have the police break it down. He didn’t die, obviously, but I was there with him, which was very intense. I think he always suffered from depression. With the speed and the schizophrenia, he’d have these really depressed moods — manic depression mixed with schizophrenia. He was on and off medicine like librium and lithium when he was younger. Then he decided he didn’t want to take them any more. I think, once, he was institutionalized in Switzerland or somewhere. He had to go away for a little bit. He came back out and continued working. I think in the ’60s my parents also had different lovers. I think my dad definitely was sleeping with models and that my mom had lovers. Group sex. They were experimenting with all that stuff. I remember my dad saying that after he tried to kill himself and he was in the hospital, my mom was fucking his assistant. I ended up working with that guy 20 years later.


[Table of contents]

F/W 2008 issue 10

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