Today, I spent most of the afternoon at La Maison Europeene de la Photographie, working in the library, looking at just a few of the 60,000+ books in the archives. It was an incredible treat. I was able to spend hours looking over things I’d read about but never before seen.
Amongst these I perused was Terry Richardson: Hysteric Glamour.
At its most essential, Terry Richardson’s work aims to offend, and it aims to offend everyone. His photographs offer a resounding rejection of all sexual and social conventions, and embrace an angry hedonism. Beneath this shocking surface, however, is a sophisticated understanding of photography, and some meaningful questions about morality.
Hysteric Glamour opens with an interesting sequence of photographs, which in turn define the work. First, we see a couple fucking (or at least just before or after, in a state of careless play); next a photograph of a clown (presumedly working children’s parties – the clown is one of two frequently recurring characters in the book); a picture of the state (represented by a cop or a military officer); and then finally an empty noose hanging from a tree.
The clown is an interesting, dynamic, perverse, and complicated presence. His bright red, bulbous nose is like an erection in the middle of his face, and at various times is seen either playing with children and twisting balloons (always a phallic substitute), or on the brink of madness. (Children are also an interesting presence in this work, as innocence is entirely forsaken in Richardson’s world.) It appears in the book that Richardson spent just a day following the clown, to work and back home again.
The second recurring character is a young, white, male hustler. He wears a black leather jacket and white briefs. Like the clown, all the photographs of this young man/boy are from one session. The photographs of him are all about his dick, desperation, and depravity.
True to the publishing standards in Japan at the time (Hysteric Glamour, in conjunction with Rat Hole Gallery, is based out of Japan), genitals are never shown. The hustler’s penis is never shown, but always scratched out with a black marker, and pussies are covered with ridiculous stickers. Strangely, this is all perfect for Richardson’s work, making it that much more perverse and naughty.
Interlaced with these are lots pictures of sex and drugs, and ocassional picture of the American landscape – an old woman playing the organ, guns, road-side signs, and pictures of the Virgin Mary. With these juxtapositions, the real value of the work emerges. Richardson challenges and questions of moral codes in these more banal and obvious ways of living. Always, Richardson seems angry and reckless, and rejects any responsibility. In this work, he appears like a childish version of Michel Foucault, challenging the moral codes and structures of society.
It is easy to criticize the adolescences of Terry Richardson: Hysteric Glamour, but hard to ignore the interesting questions and challenges at the core of the work. I am glad to have outgrown his kind of irresponsibility, but I’m also glad to learn from his continuing life in such basic forms.