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The Life of Fashion Photographer Bob Richardson
Donna Mitchell and Alexis Waldeck by Bob Richardson for Vogue Paris

The Life of Fashion Photographer Bob Richardson

Words by Georgia Gordon

Born in Long Island to an Irish Catholic family of 6, Bob Richardson lived a relatively sheltered childhood before his life took an unexpected turn. At age 22, Richardson was diagnosed with schizophrenia.  “A dark, terrifying world welcomed me”, Richardson said of the diagnosis in his autobiography. His work reflected his dark and troubled life;  provocative, unedited, and often poorly focused photographs defined his unique style of photography which saw him hired by the likes of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. 

40’s and 50’s

Before Richardson took to photography, he painted. In the late 1940’s Richardson attended the Parson’s School of Design in New York where, despite his interest in painting and fashion, his grades were poor, and he failed his fashion illustration class. He had various jobs in fashion during the 40’s, including designing fabrics in the Flatiron Building and creating window displays at Saks Fifth Avenue. Without enough money to buy his own camera at the time, Richardson borrowed one. Continuing his work in fashion, Richardson designed window displays for Bloomingdales throughout the 50’s, accepting any freelance work he could find. Eventually, he worked as an assistant for a photographer named Dick Heyman, who he met through a model. After just six months working for Heyman, Richardson left.

During the 50’s, a lot happened in Richardson’s life, including a suicide attempt at the start of the decade. In the years following, he married his first wife Barbara, his sister died in a car accident, his daughter Maggie was born to an ex-lover, and he travelled to Korea as a G.I. before getting himself medically discharged by lying about his sexuality and claiming that he was gay.

Donna Mitchell by Bob Richardson, Vogue Paris 1967

60’s

In the 1960’s, Richardson had his first commission with Harper’s Bazaar at the age of 35. Richardson’s worked with Harper’s Bazaar throughout the early to mid 60’s, until his son Terry was born in 1965 to his wife Norma. After a disagreement with Harper’s Bazaar, Richardson, along with his wife and son, moved to Europe where he created the famous French Vogue shoot with Donna Mitchell. “American magazines are cowards,” Richardson told PDN in 1997 (in reference to the end of his relationship with Harper’s Bazaar). “In Europe I’m considered a genius; in New York I’m nobody”. Well known for his provocative and gritty shots, including photographing models smoking marijuana on set, Richardson had multiple altercations with the publications he worked for. Richardson admits that his mental illness also meant that he was difficult to work with. His blunt attitude cost him job opportunities and severed multiple ties. In the 60’s, Richardson, his wife Norma and son Terry moved around a lot; Paris, London and back to New York before his life took a turn for the worse and his photography work began to drop off. In his autobiography, Richardson shared that during the 60’s he would often hear voices and hallucinate. This led to a full breakdown not long after Terry’s birth, that resulted in him being hospitalized, wearing a straitjacket in a padded cell.

Anjelica Huston by Bob Richardson, 1971

70’s

Norma left Richardson not long after he met Anjelica Huston (who was just 18 at the time). He proceeded to have a four-year long romantic relationship with Huston. Best known now for her role as Morticia Addams in the Addam’s Family, Anjelica Huston was known at the time as a model. Huston and Richardson first met on a shoot and were inseparable for the four years that followed. They worked on many hauntingly beautiful shoots together, despite Richardson’s deteriorating mental state. Often in black and white, and featuring Huston with a cigarette in hand, the duo’s photographs never quite depicted the turmoil behind the scenes. For their first photoshoot, Huston recalls that Richardson made her cry. This was something he was known for doing with a handful of his subjects. Among these models was Donna Mitchell, who cried during their iconic shoot for French Vogue.

After Richardson and Hudson split, following a disastrous family holiday with Huston, her father and stepmother, Richardson fell into a downward spiral and hi career abruptly haulted. Norma moved to Woodstock with their son Terry and remarried whilst Richardson’s mind deteriorated. In his autobiography Richardson describes that he was too afraid to leave his house as he was paranoid that someone would try to kill him and that the people on television were talking to him. Richardson stopped showing up to shoots that he booked, and as such, lost work and money. Norma stopped allowing Richardson or his parents to see Terry. He tried once again to kill himself and tragically wound up homeless for several years. During this time, Richardson sought help from the unemployment office in Santa Monica and scored a small job sorting boxes of filing cards, then as a delivery driver for a florist. Richardson said that he did not think of photography once during this period of his life. 

 

80’s

After finding a second job and saving more money, Richardson moved to San Francisco in the 80’s. It was here that an English art historian named Martin Harrison found him living in a cheap hotel after hunting him down to feature in a book he was producing on the history of fashion photography. It is said Richard Avedon refused to be a part of said book unless Richardson was also in it. Later in the 80’s, after seeing a digital camera for sale in Macy’s, he decided to save for it and take up photography again. Terry moved to San Francisco not long after Richardson, and had his father teach him everything he knew about photography.

 

Milla Jovovich and Mario Sorrenti by Bob Richardson for Vogue Italia, 1997

 

90’s

Teaching Terry motivated Richardson to teach photography in New York at the School of Visual Arts. Richardson continued to shoot during the 90’s, one of his most memorable shoots being cover to cover for an issue of Big Magazine, all of which he shot on a borrowed Leica camera. L’Uomo Vogue (men’s Vogue Italy) also gave Richardson 40 pages for one of their issues.

In the early noughties, Richardson continued to teach and add to his autobiography, ‘Outsider’. Its recent release, with pages of Richardson’s thoughts on his life from the 30’s all the way up until 2003, reveals much of his life and his controversial opinions. Despite his notoriously difficult attitude when working, Richardson shot some of fashion’s most iconic photographs and his name will continue to live on long after his death. His son Terry continues to work as a photographer, keeping his legacy alive.