The Trouble With Bob
Bob Richardson, the infamous fashion photographer from the 60's and 70's? Yeah, sure, we'd heard of him. We had seen some of his black and white photos of Anjelica Huston — his girlfriend and muse for four years — sucking on a cigarette, smoke clouds circling her face. And we'd seen his well-known photo of Donna Mitchell, the one with a tear rolling down her cheek. But mostly we knew him as the crazy father of the larger-than-life fashion photographer Terry Richardson. So when Terry asked if the two of us would meet with his dad about a book of his work, we were really curious.
Bob was living in Venice Beach and wanted to meet at the Rose Café. The Bob Richardson we met that day was a gentle, toothless old man who was into astrology and who craved to be recognized as the great fashion photographer
he was. Bob had written a tell-all autobiography and agreed to work on the layout with Ruth Ansel, one of the art directors from Harper's Bazaar who helped start his career in the 60's. We loved the idea and decided we would publish a book together.
Terry had managed to hold onto a small box of negatives, but most of Bob's work had been lost over the years he spent homeless. We searched everywhere, buying every issue of Harper's Bazaar we could find that had his work in it, poring through archives at French, Italian and British Vogue, talking with anyone who knew him, had worked with him or could provide clues as to where we could find any photographs. What emerged from the search was incredibly inspiring. Bob's photographs were so challenging and raw — to us they looked fresher than most fashion photography today, and they were more than 40 years old.
Bob was sick of California and was looking forward to living in New York, where he could start on our book and live closer to Terry. The project fell through, however, soon after his arrival. The Bob we met in Terry's studio was the Bob we had been warned about. Confrontational and impossible to work with, this was the Bob Richardson who was his own worst enemy. It was Bob's way or no way at all. We never talked with him again. A few months later, we heard that he had died peacefully in his sleep — quiet, like a baby.
Harper's Bazaar Art Director, with Bea Feitler, 1963-71
Bob was the first fashion photographer to expose women's true complex emotions, on the pages of Harper's Bazaar in the 60's. He had an inner vision about stripping away all the artifice, and I immediately responded to that. He banished the cult of "the idealized woman" from his fashion pictures and redefined modern beauty.
What fascinated him most was what was really happening on the streets and behind closed doors. 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.
Every photographer who came after him was challenged to take different pictures. He was the only fashion photographer who made Avedon question his own work.
I met Bob at Harper's Bazaar. I was a fashion editor and wasn't interested in taking photos until I worked with Bob — he was a big influence on me. He would dream up these incredible scenarios for sittings that were great for me to go off and get the perfect clothes for. I remember Avedon calling, asking me to work with him because, he said, "you and Bob are doing the most interesting stuff out there."
He had a kind of magic with his subjects. You would become seduced by him — not sexually — but you would become mesmerized and do whatever he wanted you to do without question. He had hypnotic power over people. He was nuts — a dysfunctional genius and very strong willed.
I think his greatest contribution was his sense of drama. He brought a melodrama to fashion photography that was not found in the pages of magazines at the time. He could have been a great film director had he been able to help himself more.
It was the early 70's — just after Visconti's "Damned" came out — when Bob had the idea of doing this tremendously decadent, very Roman look for Valentino. It was very scary to walk through the streets of Rome with a Nazi. People were very aware, and I kept waiting for them to throw bottles at us.
I think Bob to a certain degree was a shock artist, and this reflected his inner turmoil. I remember an Irish series we did for French Vogue. He had me flung over the side of a bridge, carrying a gun, with blood coming from my chest. This was when the I.R.A. was in full force. His pictures always had a subtext — they were about his state of mind, about him.
I was 18 when we met. I was not a model as such, but understudying in New York. I had come over from London, where I had done a few editorials with Dick Avedon. It was the time of great photographers — Avedon, Irving Penn, Hiro, Sarah Moon, David Bailey, Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin, Chris Von Wagenheim — Bob was up there at the top of the list. He was a brilliant photographer, but he destroyed most of his work, so it gives the impression that his career was short-lived. It wasn't. He was actually photographing for a long time.
We were together for years. I remember we would take Terry on the weekends. He was like an angel, the coolest-looking kid, dressed up in denim, with shoulder length hair all blond and curly.
When I was a kid, I used to go to London to see Dad and Anjelica. Last time I saw her she was like: "What happened to all that beautiful hair? You used to be so cute."
When I look at the photos Dad did with her and Donna Mitchell in the 60's and early 70's, they were so ahead of their time, they were perfect. In the context of fashion it's really hard to do that, with all the people involved and the clothes, and his are just amazing, beautiful, powerful photographs.
I guess there are certain parallels in our work, but my dad's pictures were soulful and dark and decadent but very human and real. My pictures are a little lighter. They are about high energy and sex and excess. Spontaneity. Sometimes I will take moody pictures with natural light and think, "That feels like my dad."
In the early 90's I came to New York to get some work, and Dad was here and wanted to teach. We were totally broke and worked together doing little beauty pages for Mademoiselle and Glamour. As you can imagine, working together was pretty interesting. He would always say: "You have to really make an impression on people. You have to set yourself apart and do a number on them." So we would grab a 70's slide projector, a screen and a boom box and take the subway up to Condé Nast. We'd walk in to see Linda Wells at Allure, and blast "Head Like a Hole," by Nine Inch Nails, and give them a slide show — some of his old pictures, some of mine, some we did together — like 10 people would run out of the room, looking at us like we were insane.
We did that for like six months until Vibe gave us a fashion story, and I called Dad and said, "I can't do it with you, I have to do it on my own," and he said, "You can't do it without me, I won't speak to you again." So I showed up for the shoot the next day, praying he wouldn't show up.
Dad never wanted to compromise — he just wouldn't.
When he met my mom in the early 60's, she gave up her acting career and they started to work together. Occasionally they would go off with a bag of clothes and do everything themselves. There was no makeup or hair, she styled everything and they'd work on ideas together.
He would say he wasn't interested in the past and never kept anything. When he was younger he cared about a nice car, but when he got older material possessions became less important. He liked being with his dog, which I have adopted now. It's weird; he was here at Thanksgiving, fit as a fiddle. I guess he was watching TV and just lay down and died.
(From his unpublished autobiography, "The Outsider"):
There are two kinds of people on Earth — those who live in the past and those who live in the future. . .How have I been able to survive for 75 years? Guts — willpower — pride — I am very proud of myself — I am not ashamed of anything — I have no secrets — I am free.