1. I look at this quasi-amateur photograph, lit by the camera’s flash, which turns Miley Cyrus’ blue eyes red, and think about what they do. What do they do for someone who looks at them? What do they do for Terry Richardson, the photographer, seen here in the mirror, the former junkie (and also the son of a famous sickly photographer) who is now flourishing more than ever in the American celebrity production mill (despite being condemned for harassing models). Always recognizable by his signature look − tattooed arms, sideburns, long cheeks, mustache, outsize glasses − Richardson always photographs himself with the artists whose photos he takes for their commercial projects and the magazines that interview them.
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He’s an expert in the particular type of photography seen here: a supposedly spontaneous situation of uninhibited exuberance, extroverted hyperrealist sexuality and pornographic images in the style of the 1970s (particularly of young female stars and models at the stage of becoming known, but before a total world breakthrough). He is 48 and extremely rich (having done ad campaigns for Tom Ford, Yves Saint Laurent, Diesel).
There are any number of schools in the world of fashion photography, but the “dirty” Richardson is not Richard Avedon (whose works are to be exhibited at the Israel Museum). He can be spoken of in the same way one speaks of the German photographer Juergen Teller, who is the same age. He can be called an imitator, perhaps the most able in the United States, of Teller, who is known for his supposedly chance photographs, taken not according to the “correct” rules of photography and in the natural as-it-is nudity of his models. At his peak, or in his cynical decadent stage, Teller photographed the lean, aristocratic, nude Charlotte Rampling reclining on a sofa in the Louvre.
Miley Cyrus is not the artistic, avant-garde, quintessentially-New York Lady Gaga. The latter, who was born Stefani Germanotta, is not much older than Cyrus, but the trajectory of her career has been very different, and her (artistic-professional) relations with Richardson are equally different. Their photo-book, “Lady Gaga x Terry Richardson” (November 2011, Grand Central Publishing), which covers a year of Lady Gaga’s concerts, is a brilliant study of “a certain woman,” highly singular, through an almanac of images from the world of punk rock. It’s also a discussion of terms such as addiction and creativity, fashion and fashion victims, authenticity and surrender to fame. Of course, it is a comment on and response to Madonna’s well-known book, which was photographed by Steven Meisel. But in contrast to them, with Lady Gaga and Terry Richardson the erotic extremism is intertwined with tragic wretchedness (runny makeup, dirt, and spiky, torn clothes).
Lady Gaga does not “look good” and does not aspire to look good, but to be someone else each time (both absolute object and subject). She does not allow Richardson to look at her and use her. She uses him to talk about her ability to look back, to reformulate and also to live aspects of perversion for the first time (voyeurism is already almost not perversion now). In some photographs she is a paraphrase of Debbie Harry, in others of Courtney Love and Nancy Spungen. In the bathtub, alongside and under running faucets (a regular motif for surrealists, and for Richardson), collar around her neck and yellow wigs, Lady Gaga is a variation on images that Cindy Sherman personified in her early, famous works (a terrified woman) − both all the wild girls and a superstar, both parts of someone and also the whole. An equal creative artist.
In contrast, Miley Cyrus is a southerner who is fighting for her place in the arena of R&B stars, from Beyonce to the pitiful Rihanna, by redesigning her existence. But there is no balance between the sexual and the comic. Cyrus’ face is too jolly; it’s the face of a clown. Richardson, though, is a junkie (an ex-junkie, according to his artist’s books) and possesses the aesthetic of rich junkies: an absolute preoccupation, focused and compulsive, with the stimulus, the “it” that the character played by Michael Fassbender talks about in Steve McQueen’s film “Shame,” with its re-creation and fixation. This is a permanent condition of accessibility, and he looks at women (and sometimes men) who epitomize this condition, and are usually adorned with cheap, mass-produced items combined with very expensive ones.
But above all, Richardson is fixated on extreme thinness (also related to the effect of stimulants), which possesses tremendous erotic value for him, and certainly emotional value. The young body easily absorbs stimulants, depressants, kickers, addictives and consciousness changers, yet remains smooth, available and whole without excesses of skin, weight, time, boundary, fear, caution or self-protection.
Cyrus is 20, and speaks from childhood. She makes a great effort to work with him (the symbol chosen to represent this stage − the tongue − is stuck out as though for a doctor). Still, this is a good photograph, in the sense that while the tin can arouses an initial and trivial notion of exchange (she holds what she doesn’t have, which replaces the camera, which replaces the eye), her leotard is pulled so high between her legs that it is impossible to refrain from the thought of its points of contact and pressure. That place, which the leotard traverses, is the arena at which Richardson aims in all his photographs. And repeats in variations.
However effective (it’s expensive to look so cheap; there is a huge investment here in stylization, makeup and marketing), this photograph is a restrained and commercialized reduction of Richardson’s extreme early nudes, which fused the Andy Warhol-like documentation of his community of lost/creative/young fans with the stimulus of disrobed young women: the underarm hair and full face of an anonymous young woman, her eyes glazed from whatever she sniffed or swallowed; a couple lying on a bed, tongues entwined; self-images of him in protruding, active nudity.
At that stage, he was still conversing in some way with Nan Goldin, the leading documenter of the faded people of the big city who yearn to be in love but don’t know how and try until the makeup runs down their faces. But the commercial always wants avant-garde decoration, and Richardson switched to working for the entertainment industry − now it’s no longer documentation, but posturing. That includes a low point in the form of an ad for Tom Ford in which he photographed a perfume bottle held between the thighs of a headless model. Cyrus has a head. That’s “packaging.” Don’t buy it.
2. I visited the Louvre for the first time in 15 years. Of all the paintings on the walls, I was drawn to Delaroche’s “The Young Martyr,” of 1855, which depicts a young Christian woman who was drowned in the Tiber. Her sickening-frightening white beauty in the black water brought tears to my eyes. I knew who I would call when I got back. I sat on the velvet bench on which the nude Charlotte Rampling had sat. And I waited.