Photographer Terry Richardson works in a digital aesthetic vernacular that looks more to underground hard-core pornography of yesteryear than traditions associated with the institutionalization of erotica, as associated with Playboy. And yet his images, in Kibosh and Terryworld, anticipate the contemporary public recalibration of ideas of intimacy as associated with social media, tally with contested ideas of the sexualization of female empowerment as associated with contested elements of third wave feminism, and can be read as a contemporary phase of Antonio Negri’s theory of art and immaterial labor in their evidencing of the affective labor on the part of the photographer himself. This critical commentary, the first such academic writing on Richardson, explores his work in these contexts and considers Richardson’s return to the figure (over abstraction) as evidencing and exploring of the nature of work, and the nascent eroticization of working relations, under Western neoliberal regimes.
The Terry Look
An antique “porn chic” unifies, seemingly, the majority of photographer Terry Richardson’s output—work that covers straight portraiture (for magazines, as collected in books, and via his website, as linked across numerous social media platforms), reportage, in-studio videos (often of shoots with models), music promos, architectural photography (the Hollywood sex-industry locales of the 2012 collection Terrywood), and even, revealingly and unapologetically, elements of Richardson merchandise. On the latter, it is possible to purchase, presumably as a humorous gift, the “Terry Richardson Plastic Camera” set: the plastic camera itself, a black T-shirt, and Richardson-style glasses.1 The knowing nature of the joke, in relation to the plastic camera, is that Richardson seems to prefer, as evidenced in his photos, off-the-shelf rather than professional equipment and, more importantly, revels in the resultant contradiction of being a name photographer wielding amateur and relatively inexpensive equipment. The results of this choice are characteristic of Richardson’s work and are achieved via his deployment of an inbuilt (rather than detachable) flash. This splays a caustic light across his subjects, flattening features and, as if working like an exfoliating facial sponge, unflatteringly bringing to visibility imperfections on the surface of the skin. Such roughness is in itself a key facet of porn aesthetics (along with a general poverty of the mise-en-scène, which Richardson also embraces)—at least those aesthetics established during the “underground” period of discrete production of hard-core pornography, which ran absolutely counter to the lushness and warmth of Playboy nude photo spreads.
The faux-Richardson glasses in the gift set further encode this signature “look” (of the photographs, but also of the photographer—of Richardson himself, who often appears in his own images): clunky, geeky, 1970s-esque. But if Richardson and his work seem like an anachronistic throwback to an earlier time, it is a very specific time: that period of the creation of the overlit, washed-out patina, and exploitational ambience, of modern hard-core pornography. Stephen Maddison (2009) and Nicola Steffen (2014) find, in low-budget porn production in the 1970s, the establishment of a collectively recognized “porn chic,” giving rise to a hauntology to be detected in retro fashion and club music sampling, and often now accessed via films from that period (“Der nicht zumindest einen dieser Porno-Klassiker kennt” [“Everyone recognizes at least one porn classic”]; Steffen 2014: 9).2
The black T-shirt—the final component of the gift set—underscores this sense of gonzo amateurism in the production of images: no dressy and “official” portrait shoot setup, but a casual approach in sartorial and, seemingly, artistic matters too. One would be tempted to draw parallels between Richardson and David Bailey (especially in his scruffy fictional variant, as the protagonist of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow-Up) or Helmut Newton (in terms of his relentless focus on the sexualized female form, sometimes heavily fetishized), rather than society photographers Cecil Beaton or Lord Patrick Lichfield, but for the fact that Richardson, like Beaton and Lichfield, has also shot the great and the good—even US President Barack Obama. And yet where a casual approach has been deployed by other society photographers in terms of presenting less stuffy images, as with Mario Testino’s photographs of Princess Diana (and as deliberately echoed in his later portraits of William Windsor and Kate Middleton), the results are often merely less stuffy in matters of framing, stiffness of poise, use of official attire, and so on. The sense of a cloying curtsying in exalted company, with the deferential photographer enfeebled before his subjects, has not been dispelled. Paparazzi images have managed to cut through such stratagems and caught something of the royal or exalted person underneath—that is, photographs from the vantage point of “the streets.” For the paparazzi, to borrow a phrase associated with graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, the street is the studio: a place of infinite variables; of happenstance; an unlimited, uncontrolled space; and where the photographer finds him-or herself forced to live in the moment and utilizes their camera accordingly—the sometime reflex-rendering of a split second (as Peter Howe puts it: “endless hours of tedium with moments of adrenaline-fuelled intensity”; 2005: 38). Bailey can be associated with this sensibility, as can Richardson, and with a figure like Jean Pigozzi (especially during the 1970s, snapping his way through high society and Eurotrash gatherings; see Pigozzi 1979), bridging the two.
All three photographers operated at an intersection between high fashion and “trashy” subjects, looked to playfulness rather than the earnestness that typifies much photographic realism, and found expressions of sexuality to be unavoidable and ever present in the general run of life. All three seemed to work to capture the immediacy of the moment in which the photograph is taken or, rather, from which the photograph can be said to emerge: immediacy in the sense of spontaneity, the sudden coming together of setting and subject, or a flash of character or personality, or a uniqueness to a gesture or expression or appearance. Composition and lighting are often secondary to an instinct for reportage, or a grabbing of a moment as it occurs. This is the basis of the association with pornography aesthetics: frenzied activity in which the camera is failing to “master” the reality that surrounds it but nonetheless seeks to capture what it can. And, while Richardson often seems to remain in his studio, the studio is treated as a living space and is presented as such: beds, food, clutter, computer equipment, sexual activity (presumably difficult outside), friends in attendance. More generally, contextualizing Richardson’s work in such lofty company, above, misses the one essential comparison for this obsessive and constant preoccupation with “sexiness.” The low production values and low humor, and sexual mores and attitudes that seem from an earlier time, the troubling of the liberal commentariat, and the presence of an unlikely and grinning ringmaster at the center of the circus recall British comedian Benny Hill and The Benny Hill Show. In considering Richardson’s work of the last decade, one could reasonably consider “The Terry Richardson Show” as an apt descriptor.
Richardson’s pornography aesthetic also recalls, and embraces, the limitations of the predigital instant photograph. Cameras with self-developing film, in which the material image itself was available within minutes of being taken, hit their maximum popularity in the late 1970s and early 1980s.3 In cutting out the middle man (the developer), and so eliminating the wait between taking an image and having an image, such technology introduced image making into intimate domains, and the immediacy of the intimate moment: the camera as mirror, or diary, and a device for homemade pornography. Simultaneously to the widespread use of such home technologies came new, post-1968 sensibilities, evolving toward identity politics and second and third waves of feminism. To think of the photography of nude bodies and sexual activities around 1968 is to think of the massed rather than the individual: the rally/be-in and the orgy as dovetailing—as with The Living Theater, or Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1969), or the record sleeve of Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland of 1968, or Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock (1970), or even John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s very public “bed-ins” in 1969 (and see, too, Levy 1973). In contrast, across the 1970s, the singular body itself came to be understood to bear witness to, and suffer under, micro forms of oppression, and so became the site for viable and pragmatic means of liberation. Debates over exploitation and pornography, or exhibition and empowerment, in relation to nude or semiclad models, often centered on allied questions of the individual (her “use” or, more helpfully considered in the context of this discussion, her “terms of employment” as a worker: whether enabling and dignified, or demeaning) rather than sought to mount an institutional critique of the practice itself. The latter position—empowerment through sexual performance—seems mature, liberal, and respectful and even looks to elements of second wave feminism, such as Germaine Greer’s own nude modeling for Suck magazine in May 1971. The former position—attacks on the mass nudity requested or required at the behest of predatory industries of exploitation—seems puritanical, reactionary, and infused with the kind of “killjoy” ambience that third wave feminism has sought to shake (as Sara Ahmed  argues). Those photographers whose work can be seen as anticipating and engaging with this development through their concentration on the individual self, such as Francesca Woodman (in her proto-“selfies”) and Nan Goldin (the self-documentation of The Ballard of Sexual Dependency: 1979–1986), are more usefully compared to Richardson than those whose work also explored “sexual extremes,” such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano. For Goldin, the camera witnesses in both voyeuristic and evidential ways: evidence for the prosecution of the violent partners who have beat her, and perhaps even for the self-prosecution (on Goldin’s part) of her “failures” to achieve bourgeois respectability. Such intimacy, and bringing the camera into areas of privacy, can be read as melding the identity politics of the 1970s with the widespread use of technologies of instantaneous and private photography. Indeed, this tendency can itself be read as in dialectical opposition to pornography: to take over the means of production and produce images of the body oneself. The advent of the digital camera in the 2000s further enabled this during the decade of the full institutionalization of confessional and sexual performance via social media (and in the wake of the use of the Internet for distribution of celebrity sex tapes), and the genres of reality television.
Richardson’s adoption of amateur pornography aesthetics across the 2000s begins to signal a way beyond the limitations of the consumerist fantasies that structured commercial, Playboy-centric pornography (as argued below) and toward the idea of homemade pornography as documenting new social practices. The prerequisite for this break with older modes of pornography (whether consumerist or crudely amateur), for Jean Baudrillard, writing in 1983, is a sense that an absolute visual verisimilitude of representation, as meeting with the most intimate of matters, merely offers the idea of an obscene “truth”—that is, now being able to see that thing which we do not ordinarily see, or was “secret.” This is a “forcing of representation” and is indicative of a wider malaise, but one that here, for Baudrillard, is usefully considered in respect of pornography. Pornography naturally gravitates to the visual assurance of the authenticity of the biological interactions on display, which is typically called the “money shot” (the male ejaculation). But “an orgasm in color and close up is neither necessary nor convincing—it is merely implacably true, even if it is the truth of nothing at all. It is only abjectly visible, even if it represents nothing at all” (Baudrillard  2008: 90). This sense of access to a thrillingly obscene truth, now that this truth is so widely known or exposed (i.e., the commonplace nature of money shots, and their becoming de rigueur for or a cliché of pornography), is no longer enough to sustain pornography as it had been known. Hence “we’ve come to the end of the cycle of sexuality as truth” (132). But in this paradigm, sexuality does not vanish from view but, rather, becomes the material for reworked representations. This is a tendency that could then be applied to Richardson’s revisiting of an antiquated style to achieve “porn chic,” in which sexuality becomes “more sexual than sex: porn, the hypersexuality contemporaneous with the hyperreal” (30). In this, Richardson, knowingly postmodern, can be taken to be reworking an older aesthetic tendency whose initial semiotic strategies, or promises of views of obscene truths, have long since been rendered obscure or passé. And yet the idea of Richardson as postmodern pornographer, and so having opened up a new commercial vista of obscenity, sits uneasily with the general poverty of his mise-en-scène across the 2000s. But as postpornography, Richardson’s images seem to suggest something else at work in the full institutionalization of confessional and sexual performance via social media. If, as noted, this full institutionalization occurred organically, or from the grass roots, and so is “amateur” in a more literal sense, then the resultant flows of images also evidence new forms of human interactions and communications, and new social practices. Such practices, while nominally pornographic in their endeavors, can be read as pointing toward a different type of secret, to use Baudrillard’s term, once their pornographic nature as their primary focus is discarded (or post-ed, as per post-pornography). This article argues that these social practices, as anticipated or even verified in Richardson’s work, evidence coming changes in professional or work cultures. And these changes are theorized in relation to the post-Fordist era and the way in which work moves from material production to immaterial production, often along the lines of affective labor.
For Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, affective labor “produces or manipulates affects such as a feeling of ease, well-being, satisfaction, excitement, or passion” (2005: 108). This generation of feelings or sentiment is typically understood to be an addition to actual labor, as requested and paid for, but one that comes to finesse the effectiveness of the worker and so can become fundamental to the role of the worker. Affective labor is usually associated with practices in the service industries: the waitress, while serving, may need or is expected to deploy both barista and affective skills.4 In simple terms: the question of what now constitutes work, of what the worker is now employed to actually do, and how the worker goes about doing it, has been radically revised. And, while the worker has been released from the discipline of factory hours (and so is “post-” the Fordist model of factory work, with its material production), the freedom on the other side seems to have opened up further possibilities for an ever greater extraction of labor.
At this point, the idea of new forms of the exploitation of the worker, ever more demeaning and enveloping ever more hours, dovetails with classical conceptions and representations of exploitation, as found in prostitution and pornography. This is not to say that we are all now understood to effectively be prostitutes—faking emotions to remain in secure servitude, offering both mind and body, and desire and intellect, to the employers—but that emotions and human interactions are also effectively contracted. For some third wave feminist thinkers, as noted below, this allows for empowerment and equality. Baudrillard’s maxim is extended. We may have “come to the end of the cycle of sexuality as truth” (Baudrillard 2008: 132), but in so doing we have arrived at the beginning of the cycle of sexuality as freed for deployment in other spheres, and in other ways. Richardson’s images can be seen to chart this development, and the resultant entwining of sexuality and affective labor.
The Terry Richardson Show
Richardson first garnered attention in the late 1990s, as initially associated with “heroin chic” (see Arnold 1999). Exhibitions in New York and London followed, and “Terryworld” at the Deitch Gallery in New York in 2004 (with Richardson now emboldened to brand his curated images with his own name) troubled, and was covered by, the London Observer and the New York Times (O’Hagan 2004; Trebay 2004, respectively). Rebecca Arnold makes a familial association with a 1972 Nova photo by Richardson’s late fashion photographer father, Bob, in which a model in a seedy hotel, while “conform[ing] to many of the usual sexual tactics assigned to the fashion image” in fact “appears dead, pills emptying from a bottle clasped in her hand” (1999: 294). The son’s imagery came to avoid the heroin chic trope of the emaciated and “out of it” and so helpless model, which can be read as of a continuum with the Bob Richardson photo, in Arnold’s reading, in favor of the emancipated and “into it,” pro-sex, and so empowered model. Six images of women’s faces—extracted details from full-page images from Kibosh—suggest something of this consciously awake state (see fig. 1).
The shot of “good girl gone bad” actress and model Lindsay Lohan that closes Terrywood works in just such a way too: an open mouth and seductive stare into the camera, mussed-up bleached hair and a comfy jumper, in transit (her handbag’s strap over her shoulder), and the (presumably) hotel room number 69 leveled with her knowing eyes. The unmade-up lips reveal freckles; perhaps the lipstick was rubbed off after the call girl assignment (the image’s narrative could suggest) that Lohan seems to be unapologetically modeling.
The charge that Richardson was “merely” controversial seems to have been present from the outset. The word slut scrawled across a kneeling woman’s forehead (see fig. 2), seen fellating Richardson, would seem to render the image beyond the pale for the mainstream as well as making for a deliberate provocation to alternative curatorial impulses.
Such provocation worked for the 2004 exhibition Beautiful Losers at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, for example, which sought to present art from outside the mainstream, looking to subcultures such as skateboarding and do-it-yourself electronic music (rather than institutions and industries of art), and operating without recourse to the paradigms in operation in the business of art. Richardson was singled out as unworthy of inclusion; Matthew Atencio and Becky Beal summarize the “heated arguments during the panel discussion . . . around sexism, misogyny and nepotism in the show” where “the lightening [sic] rod for this discussion was a particular work of photographer Terry Richardson that showcased his penis and naked women admiring it. Several members of the audience asked how this represented outsider sensibility, street culture or DIY. [Cocurator Aaron] Rose had difficulty defending his inclusion of Richardson’s work” (2011: 9). Such controversy has dogged his work ever since, but latterly mostly in respect to his supposed working methods. Thus a member of Pussy Riot felt obliged to apologize, postshoot, for working with Richardson, and the tabloid press reproduced a video of an off-the-cuff verbal attack on Richardson in the context of a review of his “case history” of allegations (see Testa 2015 and Foster 2015, respectively). Within ten years of Terryworld (2004) and Beautiful Losers, as I have argued elsewhere (Halligan 2015a), Richardson seems to have come to be perceived as simply generating controversy where desired: in terms of sullying the wholesomeness of the public persona associated with Miley Cyrus at the time of her “Bangerz” tour and “Wrecking Ball” single (2014), for example, or in bringing an “edginess” to fashion shoots for international labels; and then as a matter of accusations (mostly via the outraged liberal media, who have made him into a hate figure and folk devil), rather than full legal recourse, of behaviors ranging from inappropriate to sexual assault. But in this context it is difficult to read the testimonials praising Richardson, often in terms of his kindly nature, that close the entirely respectable 2015 retrospective volumes Terry Richardson (Richardson 2015 [vol. 1], unnumbered), as much more than character references for some anticipated future court case. And the ardor of the anti-Richardson furor speaks too of the fall-out from a series of revelations in recent years around senior and respected establishment media figures who would seem to have lived lives of barely concealed vice and debauchery across decades without investigation or censure from those in the know—as with the alleged cases of Roger Ailes in the United States or Jimmy Savile in the United Kingdom (see Thielman 2016 and Davies 2015, respectively). The failings of the fourth estate emerged from these revelations as effectively rendering such figures untouchable, and so calling into question any high moral ground that the popular press might continue to assume. Richardson, then, was a figure who provided the opportunity, for those who needed it, to be seen to be making good for historical derelictions of duty, on the part of themselves or their organizations or publications.
In these respects, Richardson’s notoriety could be said to be usefully understood in neoliberal terms: as available for the outsourcing of outré photo shoots so that multinational companies can avoid potential scandals relating to in-house activities from risqué and salaried photographers. Richardson’s Kibosh (2004) therefore might be read as advertising or anticipating something that had yet to be fully called into existence: a self-fulfilling prophecy of a wild photographer, freely spraying his semen across his subjects, whom an advertising agency, in need of a measure of artistic reinvigoration or to demonstrate a competitive edge, may dare to hire for a few hours. And any concomitant negative coverage of the exploitative and “pervy” nature of “Uncle Terry” and tut-tutting over his use by fashion houses and magazines become the foundations for online click-bait rather than raising the unwelcome specter of the “feminist killjoy” in relation to those who would criticize Richardson, especially in respect of notions or (for Hakim 2011) potentials, of social and career empowerment through sexuality.5 One is further tempted to speculate that the “problem” of Terry Richardson might simply be that he does not tastefully cloak the nature of exploitation in modeling (via artsiness or even, in third wave feminist terms again, as empowerment) but just crudely delivers the object of desire as objectified and at times actually subject to seemingly aggressive sexual desire. And, at this time, with the dissemination of risqué images across social media as caught between the trivial (bannings of images of breastfeeding, for example, see Nelson 2014; the nonscandals of pushing against beauty “norms”) and the cruelly pernicious (the initial refusal to recognize pansexual identities, for example; see Hot Mess, 2015), Richardson’s radicalism—at least in respect to the stream of images issuing from his studio, via his website, and as disseminated across social media—came to reside in the former category of trivial: a tight spectrum of vanilla candidness that seems little more than showing elements of straight arousal, or the “edginess” of A-list female star armpit hair (see Billboard 2015). A Tumblr account, “I Miss the Old Terry,” draws a measured conclusion: that Richardson’s work of interest (at least, the work that he is releasing) was now a thing of the past (“I Miss” 2015). The way in which the two-volume Terry Richardson (Richardson 2015) cleansed the back catalog of potentially problematic images could be said to be further evidence of as much.
2004: Kibosh and Terryworld
Kibosh presents itself as recording a series of precise moments in what seems to coalesce, across its hundreds of pages, into an overarching sexual narrative of Richardson’s numerous partners. Mostly the photos show Richardson receiving (or starting to receive, or having just received) oral sex. Minor narratives run through the book too: the messy studio space in which the sexual encounters seem to occur; the women who are seen providing the oral sex, only to then disappear and sometimes reappear later; Richardson’s assistants who occasionally step into (“photo bomb”) the shots; and glimpses of some other recognizable artifacts. The mise-en-scène of Kibosh seems airless, unhealthy, entropic, more crack house than whorehouse, and the narrative unfolds across an uncertain duration. Time does seem to pass, however, as signaled through the introduction of new tattoos on Richardson’s limbs. And one tattoo in particular, unavoidable across Richardson’s stomach—“T-Bone” (slang for penis, as equating penile muscle with high-quality, sirloin-cut beefsteak)—emphasizes the way in which the project of Kibosh is fundamental to Richardson: as fundamental as justifying a permanent marking on his body, since Kibosh essentially presents his T-Bone in use. Or, that Richardson himself is, in fact, T-Bone (his street name? his skater name?): that he is named after his penis. And indeed his grinning face is often placed at the outer reaches of the shots or, blurred and darkened, outside or behind the areas in focus, or just cropped off altogether. It is his erection rather than himself that comes to dominate the image. Or, in thinking about the expensive nature of these reproductions (glossy, full-bleed) and the coffee-table-size, deluxe-bound book itself (from Italian art publisher Damiani), that “T-Bone” is effectively the gallery caption next to the art work itself—in this case, Richardson’s penis.
While the shots briskly reproduce the dominant relations of the male receiving oral sex, as familiar from pornography (the male towering over the squatting or horizontal female; the male receiving pleasure from the repetitive work of the female), and while the shots also, through the smirks and look-at-me framing and performing, suggest the braggadocio of revenge shots of ex partners in compromising sexual positions (as made public online by embittered or vengeful men), they do not suggest a terminus. That is, unlike hard-core pornography or revenge pornography, Richardson’s blow-job shots do not function as the nec plus ultra of having successfully “pulled” or “nailed” a desired partner. Rather, the shots seem exploratory—not arriving at the moment of oral sex as the final destination, but that moment as one further step in an ongoing inquiry into the nature of sexual intimacy. So the book sequences shots of encounters with different women: younger, older, girlfriends, (perhaps) prostitutes, “rougher” women (cuts and abrasions, acne blemishes, ungroomed pubic hair), and, perhaps, pornographic models (fully made up, surgically enhanced), and with a merry interlude with a number of transgendered or preoperation transsexual partners. For these only, Richardson conspicuously sports a condom.
For the inquiry, across Kibosh, Richardson is in the process of trying out mouths, moving between, and back and forth, familiar mouths and new mouths, as if sampling wines from different vineyards and of different vintages. The transgender interlude, in this context, seems like a comparative excursion. And it is this matter—receiving oral sex, and his sexual pleasure generally—that is the narrative thread, or thematic continuum, across Kibosh. This occurs in media res: with no introduction or scene setting.
Image 1: close-up of a girl’s face, performing oral sex;
Image 2: same girl held upside down by a standing Richardson, who is receiving oral sex;
Image 3: rear-entry vaginal sex;
Image 4: girl masturbates Richardson;
Image 5: variant of image 4;
Image 6: centerfold-type image of oral sex; and so on.
And Kibosh ends in pretty much the same way.
Such a cutting-to-the-quick upturns expectations of the sequencing of erotic images. Beatriz Preciado, in a critical consideration of the philosophy of Playboy magazine, notes the narrative functions of the standard sequence of nude images. This narrative typically begins with the Playmate model, who performs the role of being “a rather helpless and infantile girl” and so is presented as the “girl next door” in her “natural habitat” (home or the office, where she would typically be seen as a secretary). This offers the reassurance that she is not a prostitute or predatory and “loose” woman (i.e., she is safely disease free). For Playboy, therefore, the “Playmates were nice clean girls; there was nothing to fear from seducing them” (Preciado 2014: 57), and the engendered fantasy of this seduction occurs across the progressive disrobing in the sequence of photos: from office girl to centerfold.
Preciado also quotes Playboy founder Hugh Hefner’s “rules” for photographic shoots and notes, in 1958, a call for readers to engage in “Photographing Your Own Playmate” (2014: 63). The conception is that the girl next door could indeed be revealed to have erotic potential, and that this hidden and maybe even unexpected aspect of her is simply waiting to be tapped and revealed. The revelation cannot be immediate (since the helpless/infantile girl is to be shyly reticent about such matters) but must occur through a gradual process of stripping.6 The narrative of hard-core pornography is merely a logical extension of this approach, but now terminating in penetrative sex rather than full-frontal nudity.
Over half a century later, a capitalization of this erotic potential, in respect to the “global porn ecology,” is commonplace for self-employed “models at home”: “Any girl from the most remote regions of Russia or any young person from Alcarria armed with a computer, a webcam, and a Paypal account can find themselves very easily to be legitimate competitors of Playboy,” Preciado notes (2014: 215–16). This development, then, may be usefully considered in respect to Hefner’s and Richardson’s versions of the “girl next door.” For Hefner the occasional girl next door may turn out to be, miraculously and in the manner of an idiot savant (or just goaded into being), a fully realized Playmate. While for Richardson, the girl/transsexual next door is already fully aware of this potential and seems to move straight to a “pornified” performance. No narrative of seduction is deemed necessary.
The composition of images illustrates just such a divide too: the Playboy shoot is often tastefully (that is, softly) lit, gauzy, and soft focus, and the model almost coy. Richardson’s aesthetic recalls cheap 1970s porn imagery: bluntly gynecological or organcentric and lit to reveal the maximum of detail, including tell-tale marks on “real” bodies—the aesthetic that counters the unreality of institutionalized mainstream pornography (as finessed by airbrushing and photo shopping, trimming and shaving, teeth whitening, digital manipulation: smoothing off, as it were, the surface and stresses of the body). That is, the images speak of reportage rather than fantasy, and of the actualité and immediacy of the encounter rather than staged and performed acts within an evolving erotic narrative.
In this, Richardson’s use of relatively cheap technology, in terms of cameras, and his ease in reproducing aesthetically less-than-perfect images (for example, blurred or poorly lit), come to make sense. Richardson’s preference is for multiple 35mm point-and-shoot Yashica T5 cameras, small enough to fit into the palm of a hand, and which renders image density and detail, if not depth, and features a built-in flash and timer—the camera itself features in the images, as scattered and discarded, or as an accompaniment to sexual acts in themselves. But if the aesthetic recalls vintage porn, the evidential nature of the images anticipates what it means to have a sexual encounter in the age of social media, when reportage (verbal or visual) functions as immediate news, social capital, validation, comedy, erotic recall, blackmail material (on a spectrum from “slut shaming” to literal blackmail), a process of becoming-celebrity (for those famous from a succès de scandale sex tape), and even legal protection (against those who would claim a lack of compliance on their part). And the social (rather than private) element is writ large: the sexual process is one of humor, dares, and feats, as if requiring an audience for all this (fellatio performance, penetration close-ups, mid-masturbation selfies), and photography is part of the sexual process itself. Women wear Terry’s glasses; Terry’s ejaculate pools onto his own glasses; women are individually seen emerging from a trash can (in the manner of Oscar the Grouch of Sesame Street), from where they fellate; women’s heads stick out of closed suitcases, to fellate; priest and nun costumes are used; a fairy godmother costume is used; a pantomime horse is deployed (with Terry’s penis standing in for the horse’s); Terry’s erection seems in danger of encountering a dog that is held aloft (it is unclear whether it is a real dog or a stuffed toy); and a threesome of transsexuals playact, adopting porn-star poses as if aping a “real” (heterosexual) porn shoot. The puerile jokes continue into Terryworld: Richardson using the string of an inserted tampon to floss his teeth, or pressing his mouth against female genitalia so that the pubic hair is recast as his moustache (both images perhaps offer disrespectful homage to Mapplethorpe’s self-portraits);7 cows’ udders and bananas replacing penises; a penis “wearing” a Manolo Blahnik stiletto; Batman and Robin flashing and kissing. Terry’s semen seems to get everywhere in Kibosh especially—smeared across faces, tights, stomachs, and somehow into his own mouth, spattered on floorboards, staining his clothes—as if its presence is both biological validation of the ontological truth of the sex seen and the punchline of this broad-stroke and goofy comedy show. The term kibosh could be taken as some kind of moment-of-orgasm cry—a sort of comedic variant on “Yes!,” as an amalgamation or blending of “ka-boom!,” “splash!,” “splat!,” “bang!,” “gush!”—and so emblazons the book quite precisely: muscle spasm/orgasm/ejaculation/exclamation.8 It is a pop art move for the collection of images: the big nonsense title, outmaneuvering or undercutting a sense of artiness with street language, and perhaps even in this seeking comparison with Roy Lichtenstein’s iconographic 1963 painting “Whaam!”
The camera itself is almost as ubiquitous as Richardson in the images. Sometimes the photo is of Richardson taking a photo, and in this respect casts Richardson as model/porn star rather than artist: subject rather than photographer. Or others are seen taking the photo (or, in one instance, videoing): Richardson taking a photo of a woman taking a photo of his penis, for example. But generally the composition evidences that Richardson has taken the photo: vertiginous angles down or up, all of which can be read as POV (point of view; another aesthetic vernacular of amateur porn), or artlessly angled shots on the level of the mouth, from a camera dropped to the level of the groin/mouth interaction. Indeed, fellatio lends itself to photography in these respects: Richardson’s hands and upper body remain free to deal with the photographic record, which would not be the case in terms of the fuller preoccupation of face-to-face sexual intercourse. Those other hands around the cameras, however, or the discarded cameras on a bedspread, work to evidence the democratic nature of the act of photography in these scenarios: an accompaniment to sex that produces its own particular secretions (digital images) rather than a reorganizing of sex to another end altogether (the production of pornography). Thus cameras denote compliance. In this respect, the presence of the cameras in the images function as akin to the only written words in the book, a quote by Richardson found on the first (unnumbered) page beyond the front matter: “I would never ask someone to do something that I wouldn’t do myself.” Despite the temptation to believe otherwise, this proviso claims that the acts depicted are of mutual exploration rather than exploitation. (In fact, Richardson is not seen giving oral sex to a male or transsexual himself, so the maxim still requires some good faith.) But the maxim itself may be another joke: a preemptive, defensive self-exculpation that, in introducing Kibosh in this way, recalls warnings such as Dante Alighieri’s “Abandon hope, ye who enter here,” inscribed above the ninth gate of Hell (in Inferno). For Terryworld, this classical connection becomes explicit: an open door, seemingly within a derelict building, and “Enter Hell” messily graffitied above an arrow pointing in (and the next image: a naked Richardson as a devil, red-eyed from the flash, the hanging tail perpendicular to his flaccid penis). The image opposite the “I would never ask . . .” maxim effectively presents and so demystifies the methodology employed in this image making: a teddy bear straddling and dwarfed by Richardson’s erection, as he reclines on a bed, his anus on display and the flash of the camera, and the unnamed photographer, reflected in the curved metallic lampshade above the bed.
In the parallel collection of images, Terryworld, Richardson often remains in the frame, even as it becomes occupied with others—even, at times, notable others.9 Whereas for Kibosh, Richardson’s presence was necessary—since, in the manner of a diary, he was recording his own actions—for Terryworld his presence seems superfluous, and even opportunistic, and then veering between obsessional and tedious. If Kibosh concerns activities behind closed doors, Terryworld concerns the world outside that Richardson now finds: on porn film sets, in cheap hotel rooms, in trailer parks, on roads, in cemeteries, in public toilets, and in forests.
Why does Richardson remain in frame? Terryworld, as a kind of mappa mundi, shows a world that revolves around him: he remains at its center, generating or provoking this world and its behaviors into existence before the camera. As with Pigozzi, it is Richardson’s presence that seems to transform the humdrum into a party, that suggests the possibility of a permanent record of these fleeting encounters and everyday moments (a woman entering a hotel bedroom from a shower, Pigozzi’s legs visible on the bed, for example), through the presence of a camera. But Terry is not confined to the role of interloper and interpreter and goes further: Richardson could be said to be the world in its fallen state, enticing stars down from the heavens to dally with him, and so partake of something of a loss of innocence, and the fall of man, before returning to the firmament with a more distinctive sparkle, as is the case with his work with Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, and Beyoncé. Even the absence of Richardson in the frame becomes no barrier to imagining him behind the camera, and reading the image as a direct result of the interaction between him and his subjects.
In the grimy context of Richardson’s mise-en-scène, the “real” reportage of leaked celebrity sex tapes still seems impossibly glamorous: beautiful people making love in a loving way, often in plush surroundings, or engaged in seductive social media practices. In this respect, as Thomas Fahy notes (2007: 79), there is an element of the aspirational to this aesthetic: an unguarded insight into upper and (as with Paris Hilton) millionaire classes. As with Playboy (or its aspirant 1970s British variant, Park Lane), the erotic frisson here also finds a foundation in a sense of material wealth or security: this available woman as “earned” by the work of the unseen man, and so available for his “use.” The look of seedy couplings and sexualized joshing of Terryworld is quite the opposite to the aspirational: the milieu to be avoided. The online equivalent of Terryworld, in terms of the ugliness of the aesthetic, would be confined to websites catering for particular fetishes: the eroticization of rough working-class bodies; dogging, swinging, and group sex; scatological interests and the incorporation of “gross out” behaviors with sexuality; girls feigning being underaged—that is, the downwardly mobile, or semilegal, context of those who are “slumming it” in order to satisfy minority interests. And there is a geographical particularity to this too, and one that also finds a resonance in the anonymous and run-down environs of Terryworld: the sense of the outskirts of towns (gas stations near motels, woodlands), or derelict and squatted buildings and warehouses—the forgettable, drab, and undesirable locales in which such sexual practices can be found, or bought, and practitioners congregate, and are all usefully kept out of sight.
Modeling Affective Labor
There is something of a disconnection between denizens of these semicriminal and criminal environs (Richardson’s geographic particularity) and those who would peruse the coffee-table Richardson books or attend galleries to see his work. One could surmise—in the absence of field data—that the images function as educational, as historical documentation (in the manner now held to be the case for Mapplethorpe), as humorous diversions, as anti-canonical (in their naïve aesthetics and artlessness), and as (failed?) pornography. If Richardson is an artist (despite this strategic artlessness)—one whose status as such is validated by coffee-table books and art galleries, by the offering of a mitigating proviso of consent, through the eponymous titles of the collections discussed here—then what kind of artistic labor is Richardson engaging in, to these uncertain ends?
Standard ethical critiques of pornography industries, along the lines of exploitation of coerced or impaired models, are difficult to pin on Richardson. After all, these images are not associated with “extremes” of behavior—as with the bukkake subset of pornography, or the excremental and bloodied experiments of the Viennese actionists, or BDSM cultures. The subjects of Kibosh and Terryworld do not seem to have found themselves, by an unfortunate turn of circumstances, effectively humiliated or in distress and unwilling before the camera. In fact, despite the look of instantaneous reportage, the photographs almost universally seem posed or, more appropriately, performed as live.
This can be understood as part of a wider issue relating to technological issues in the transition to digital photography: unlike their automated predecessors, digital cameras are not always truly instantaneous. Critically, milliseconds or even whole seconds can pass while the camera finds its focus by automatically adjusting the lens—the lag between pressing the button to take a photo and the photo actually being taken. This often obliges the subject or subjects to adopt a kind of tableau vivant, performing (and understanding the need to perform) a freeze-frame effect as they wait. Any run of frenzied sexual action for a Richardson photograph needs to occur across some seconds if the performer understands that a photograph will be taken of it. What then occurs is familiar to theorists of live contemporary music and popular musicology: the performance of, to use Philip Auslander’s term, “liveness” ( 2008). The result is ontologically questionable: a form of authenticity as masking a content of inauthenticity—the most obvious example of which is a pop star lip-synching to a prerecorded track during a “live” concert. Those critical seconds of posing therefore are seconds of, it could be argued, compliance on the part of those in the frame. At their most subversive, where the subjects look unhappy (which is rare) or “out of it” (not as rare, but not comatosed as per Arnold’s comments about), the images may be understood to be a performance of noncompliance, but a performance nonetheless. (This is not to say that other critiques of pornography do not still stand: the images might be said to be a fractional contribution to an ecology of pornography veering toward suggestions of humiliation, objectification, the normalization of prostitution, and even damagingly idealized notions of physical beauty.)
Such a performance of these sexual narratives, for Kibosh, is one that, while courting scandal, is difficult to actually consider as scandalous or even sensationalist. Even within the orbit of feminism, the performance of sexuality as a mark of a democratic right has come to be considered as empowering: as noted by Angela McRobbie as defanging feminist agency (2009), and by Ariel Levy in relation to the rise of raunch culture (2006); as championed by Hakim and even Naomi Wolf (2012); and as giving rise to the sexualization of feminism as a shame-free lifestyle option—“Sexy Feminism” for Jennifer Armstrong and Heather Rudúlph (2013).10 Richardson could even be said, to continue this line of thought, to bring about such empowerment: to enable the performance of sexuality and the realization of erotic potential, so encouraging and bringing out the ability of everyone to perform in the manner of a porn star.
All this occurs in the enclosed and laboratory-like condition of Kibosh, albeit with the occasional interloper in frame, and is then tracked outdoors for Terryworld—and yet many of the latter’s images, with their models flattened against minimalist white backgrounds (in the manner of Andy Warhol’s factory photographs), retain a sense of specimen-subjects isolated for close examination. What occurs in this movement to the outside, and then continues beyond Terryworld, is a “pornification” of everything, in the sense of making everything redolent of pornography, or representing the world in a vulgar and crude way, as if demonstrative sexual intercourse is the only vector through which the world can be interpreted and even, as noted above, rendering “actual” sexual encounters as modeled on behaviors and poses seen in pornographic media. Even when Richardson eradicates human subjects altogether, for Terrywood (2012), the emptied landscapes are still found to be pornified: anonymous urban vistas with the garish colors and signs for strip joints—the spaces of Los Angeles as if simply being between takes on porn sets. Richardson then becomes the overseer of this operation of pornification. In this respect, the nature of Richardson’s artistic labor becomes apparent: affective rather than material. This accounts for both the ways in which Richardson seems to be more a producer than a director or creator of the work, and the sense of his presence even when unseen since behind the camera. Richardson’s professional role is that of on-site provocateur, with the alchemical ability to push people-performers into feats of pornographic (rather than simply erotic) spectacle, seemingly beyond expectations and even comfort zones. And so this professional role, allied to management of performance, is one that can be read directly in relation to affective labor.
Such a consideration of affective labor in relation to Richardson is a two-stage operation. Firstly, and anecdotally, it is seemingly a positive affective strategy of interpersonal or prosocial skills that allows Richardson to achieve the images that he does: affective labor as the essential means of production, as a way of being a strategic provocateur who does not endanger the end result (the image) through excessive provocation. Richardson’s producing of his erect penis during a photo shoot would be a fairly Manichean situation: to either shut down the encounter or continue into the realm of hard core. The real condemnation can be saved for those who oversee the reversal of this operation: the generation of images that speak of free will and consent while masking coercion and exploitation. Such an argument is made in relation to peer pressure and the societal imperatives of “going wild” and raunch culture in relation to Girls Gone Wild by Karen Pitcher (2006); is the basis, too, of Victoria Coren’s concerns, in a journalistic investigation into the making of pornography (see Coren 2012: 184); and is articulated by Zahm as fundamental in distancing Richardson from pornography in his introduction to Terryworld (Zahm, quoted in Richardson 2012: unnumbered ).
Secondly, and more usefully, the images evidence this mode of affective labor. In this respect, Richardson’s work can be usefully considered in relation to the end moment of Negri’s arresting delineation of artistic phases of the modern era, each of which broadly seems to look to changing modes of labor and production.11 For Negri, art since 1968 can be read as an exploration of the nature of cognitive, affective, and immaterial labor: the diffused, or even invisible, means of production of the postindustrial, post-Fordist, and neoliberal age.12 In short: in Richardson’s photography, the role of the contemporary worker comes to be seen. And this is in dialectical opposition to the abstractions of the expressionist phase: Richardson’s focus is often close, but not so close that the images begin to degenerate into pixelated patterns. The alignment of methodology and equipment is quite correct in this respect: the T5’s 35mm lens continues to capture fine detail even when the photos are reproduced to a substantial size—the texture of skin, the specifics of veins on Richardson’s penis, the milkiness of his sperm, and so on. Thus the images are forcibly figurative: the body is present in forensic detail. What seems to be occurring, through the sexual narratives or encounters, is a master class in affective scenarios.
Service-industry (post-Fordist) considerations of affective labor tended to remain, in concept, periphery to the main business of service itself: service “with a smile” remains service all the same. Matthew Brannan charted, in 2005, what seemed to be a transition from the periphery to the center of service-industry modus operandi—“the deployment of workers’ sexuality in pursuit of organizational objectives,” which Brannan terms “sexualized emotional labour” (2005: 421).13 In this instance, the interactions occur on the telephone: those successfully flirting with clients, like those employed for sex-chat lines, remain safe in the knowledge that they would not meet those clients. For Brannan, flirtation is not just a way of getting ahead, and the practice of the canny worker (as per Hakim). It is, more importantly, a key objective or even demand of the worker, as overseen, encouraged, and policed by crude office managers. For the Invisible Committee, the “emotional” element can be removed altogether: “sexualized labor” as the way in which successful businesses and senior managers come to fully integrate sexual activity, or their sex lives, into their working methods and lives (2009: 47). Earlier, Negri, with Guattari, had noted a running together of work and private life, at the behest of global capital, moving toward neoliberal models of industry: “Deterritorialized production signifies that work and life are no longer separate” (1990: 22). To return to the Playboy comparison: Richardson’s images are not, then, the finding of erotic frissons in the working environment and its denizens but the remaking of the working environment and interactions therein along the lines of erotic interactions. This provocation raises questions for numerous fields that seek to critically theorize and understand labor—or mount resistance to neoliberal forms of exploitation, or disentangle ideas of empowerment and exploitation—but particularly fields associated with feminism and managerialism.
In these ways, as an exemplar exerting a centrifugal force over Western working methods, affective labor becomes increasingly tied to that most (biologically) affective of responses: sexual impulses. One could go further and consider this to be close to one of the frontiers of outsourcing: to undercut rivals, one comes to offer one’s body as “value added” or an “in-kind” resource, to finesse the winning of a contract. But this is not the classic and opportunist “power couple” or even “fuck buddy” arrangement, in which sexual matters remain a matter of mutual respect and enjoyment. It is, rather, a matter of human resources and portfolio management. In this, the worker is understood as a body available for exploitation—but a freed rather than shackled slave, or a sexual role player rather than hired prostitute: one who is willing to enter into such relationships, even performing faux feelings, but requiring nudgelike provocations from the on-site manager to go the one step further. And the context for these developments and new ways of earning a living in the West is far from the aspirational and lush in these images, as once associated with mainstream erotica. Richardson’s crack-house mise-en-scène is one that resonates with precarity and poverty: the scuzzy aesthetics of 1970s sexual exploitation come to be seen to anticipate something of the psychology of contemporary practices of the extraction of labor value from the workforce. In Richardson’s photography, such new models of the worker and affective labor are traumatically apparent.
This can be purchased through Amazon.com and American Apparel for US$75 at the time of writing. Richardson has a branded pair of actual glasses, too: “Terry,” in the Salt Optics range.
Terry Richardson is a New York–born (1965) photographer, whose itinerant childhood and early life included periods spent in the United States and Europe, particularly New York, Los Angeles, and London, and was colored, by his own account, by family problems and periods of poverty. After leaving school, Richardson followed his initial ambitions and played bass in a variety of punk bands in southern California. Richardson’s father had been a noted photographer, as discussed below; his mother was an actress, and his stepfather, Jackie Lomax, had been a British pop and rock musician of some note. Richardson’s photographic work has been a continual source of controversy, as considered to evidence working methods that are little more than cover for sexual coercion and assault, even to the extent that galleries seem reluctant to mount retrospectives and art critics to praise his work.
“Porn chic” can be understood as a recovery and use of the aesthetics of pornography from former years as an accoutrement to contemporary cultural practices, especially around T-shirts, night clubs and themed parties, sampling and DJing, “bad film” nights, sporting “hipster” facial hair, films such as Boogie Nights (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997) and Auto Focus (dir. Paul Schrader, 2002), coffee-table books such as Danish Porn (Nordstøm 2012) and the like, translating the jarringly unfashionable look of yesteryear into the cutting edge of the contemporary. More generally, such “vintage,” “retro,” or even “nostalgic” pornography, as a niche interest, is well catered for on the Internet. Certainly, however, it is more often a question of reappropriating the look of the male who was once found at the center of this hedonistic maelstrom (moustachioed, unlikely as a model by today’s norms, and seemingly unreconstructed in his perception of gendered role models), rather than being a pole of aspiration for females.
The application of the term to Richardson’s work by journalists and cultural commentators has been attacked as reductive and misleading by Richardson’s collaborator and publisher Olivier Zahm: “Pornography is not only fake, stupid and dangerous, it does not exist. It’s a pure construction, an illusion. Terry’s pictures are the opposite of that. They are deconstructing this faux veneer. That is why it’s so infuriating to hear the press call his work ‘porn chic’ or ‘porn glamour’” (quoted in Richardson 2012: unnumbered ). Aside from the assumption that the charge is necessarily pejorative, Zahm intimates that “porn chic” masks that postmodern tendency for freely assembling disparate aesthetic vernaculars. Richardson, for Zahm, works against such ontologically questionable reconstruction in his return to a kind of unfiltered reportage—a return that is certainly not locked into any one particular moment or phase of chicness. And ideally, glamour photography, as Zahm notes of his (and Christopher Niquet’s and Richardson’s) work with Lindsay Lohan, ought to encompass “a realm of darkness [as much] as of light” (Zahm 2010: 64): a full and challenging emotional spectrum, and one not just beholden to the ebbs and flows of the fashionable.
For an overview of Polaroid technology and cultures, see Peter Buse (2007).
Hardt and Negri later note that affective labor is deeply embedded in the understanding of what it means to act as a female, especially in a blue-collar capacity (2009: 134). On the question of the profession of modeling itself as affective, and expectations on the model, as often prone to precarious labor conditions in this respect too, see Elizabeth Wissinger (2007).
In addition to Hardt and Negri, Félix Guattari, and The Invisible Committee (all cited in this article), other theorists working in the field of theorizing such new forms of labor include Paolo Virno and Maurizio Lazzarato (see Virno and Hardt 1996; particularly section 2, “Working in Post-Fordism”) and Ephemera’s special issue “Immaterial and Affective Labor: Explored” (Dowling, Nunes, and Trott 2007).
This is not to say that the model is expected to lead the critique in the face of having raised concerns about the nature of the photo shoot; Ahmed’s call for a recovery of the figure of the feminist killjoy suggests that the commentariat (both journalistic and editorial, and academic) would be better placed to do so. While her article is dedicated to “all the feminist killjoys” (“you know who you are!”; Ahmed 2010: n1), Ahmed is not prescriptive in saying who they are.
These rules, and general philosophy, seem to have dated rapidly, even for those not in the ambit of second wave feminism; a 1993 episode of the comedy The Larry Sanders Show (“Broadcast Nudes”) sees Hefner, playing himself, reject an offer of a photo spread of the personal assistant to the talk show host’s sidekick, to be called “The Sidekick’s Sidekick,” on the grounds that it is “a circa 1975 idea,” to the fury of the sidekick.
As with, for example, “Untitled (Self Portrait)” of 1973 of Mapplethorpe in metal and leather bondage gear, and “Self-Portrait” of 1978, with a whip’s handle inserted into his anus.
Kibosh is a term of uncertain origins meaning to restrain or stop—to “put the kibosh” on something. Such a literal reading is comically inappropriate for Richardson, since Kibosh just keeps going with its record of unrestraint.
Terryworld was published in the same year as Kibosh, with which it shares some images, but one senses that Kibosh, looking backward, archived work that had been done while Terryworld represented contemporary work. Some of the faces who appear in Terryworld indicate the artistic milieu in which Richardson perhaps places himself, and with some justification: Dennis Hopper (whose photography ceased in 1967, but documented a very particular scene: the counterculture and its context before its institutionalization in the Summer of Love and beyond); Harmony Korine (whose various media works deal with often extremes of outsiderism, poverty, and the defacing of popular culture); the Jackass performers (whose MTV television show of 2000–2002 challenged ideas of taste and decorum through the staging of stunts and “candid camera” moments); and Chloë Sevigny and Vincent Gallo (who together, in Gallo’s 2003 film The Brown Bunny, performed an extended scene of fellatio, with Gallo reputedly directing and filming and receiving).
For further discussion of the sexualized nature of third wave feminism, see Halligan (2013); on the public performance of sexuality or sexual narratives as feminist protest, in relation to the SlutWalk movement, see Halligan (2015b). The circulation of Richardson’s images across media platforms, as noted above, and especially of former teen starlets such as Lohan and Cyrus, works to invite a consideration of these images in debates allied to third wave feminism. While much of the strategic thinking that informed second wave feminism looked to forms and practices of withdrawal from patriarchal cultures (and even geographical areas), so that debates concerning representation and dignity were perceived as merely tactical at best and a waste of time as worse, third wave feminists sought to storm back into and disrupt these areas. In this, popular culture was now targeted as an, if not the, arena for battle, especially in relation to its all-pervasive nature and the ways in which it was understood to normalize standards of behavior and appearance, particularly for the young and impressionable. Richardson’s public persona, which I here refer to as “Terry,” seems designed to draw fire in this context, even to the point of Terry seemingly seeking to embody, in a porn chic manner, and deliberately or otherwise, the violent and predatory male that second wave feminists would have felt, in the 1970s, to be beyond reform, and so prompting their exodus.
Even an early Terry appearance, in Bruce LaBruce’s gay porn film Skin Flick (also known as Skin Gang, 1999), has the photographer winding up in an argument with a stranger with whom he engages in an impromptu outdoors shoot, asking, “Let me see your ass a little bit” and cooing “I love that!” and “That’s so sexy!” After she exposes, and so ruins, his film, and he calls her a “cunt,” “bitch,” and “slut,” he is berated, slapped, and eventually chased off by the furious amateur model: “Dirty bastard! I’ll fucking put my fucking boot right up your fucking ass! Bet you might like it too, huh?”
This is not to say that Richardson’s work can be read in support of Negri’s revolutionary position on art and immaterial labor, which ultimately seeks to rethink the Kantian sublime in terms of understanding contemporary, globalized processes of the abstraction of labor, and finding these processes of abstraction, and the oppositions that they engender, in art after 1968 (Negri 2011: 120–23). Rather, I am proposing that Richardson’s work evidences an aspect of that process of abstraction, and so shows something of the nature of contemporary labor, but arguably with a negligible critical distance from it—something that is, perhaps, the task of the critical writer, in relation to attempting to find in Richardson’s art those roots that, for Vladimir Lenin, “should be deeply implanted in the very thick of the laboring masses” (Lenin 1978: 231).
Negri’s historical delineation (“rough, of course, but nonetheless real” [2011: 102]; a “broad-brush description [that] does not pretend to offer a new narration of the history of art” ) is found in his 2008 paper “Metamorphoses: Art and Immaterial Labour” (see Negri 2011: 101–23). Firstly, Negri notes a new realism allied to the “massification—crude and powerful—of working class labour,” during a phase in which class struggle is deemed as central to capitalist development: 1848–70. Secondly, impressionism is allied to a phase in which the worker comes to grasp that the means of production can be dissolved and reformed or reterritorialized (in terms of self-management) on the workers’ own terms: a process in which “creation lay in dissolution” (103), and this is dated to 1871–1914. Both these phases are related to the age of the skilled worker (106). Thirdly, expressionism, which is read across the period 1917–29, comes to reflect the abstraction of labor, which occurs at the behest of industry (on the cusp of post-Fordism) and empowers the worker: it is a resistance to the imposed conditions of increased production, as well as forming revolutionary proletarian subjectivity—“the very material for an alternative imagination” (104). Fourthly, an unnamed phase runs across 1929–68, given over to the “geometrical destructuring of the real” (105) and the “socialist management of . . . abstraction” (106), often via a simplification of artistic gestures: a process of demystification, which could be said to resonate in art read as postmodern, such as pop art. From 1968 to the present, with “the end of the mass worker” (113), art and cognitive labor power are understood to be in dialogue in relation to a common undercurrent of affective and immaterial labor.
Immaterial labor is typically theorized as a matter of “ideas, symbols, codes, texts, linguistic figures, images” (Hardt and Negri 2005: 108)—and where the exchange value of these outcomes is often predicated on further sets of variables often devoid of a precise connection to day-to-day existence.
Tellingly, Brannan’s data and ethnographic reflections, drawn from a West Midlands call center, go under the same title—Once More with Feeling—as Coren and Charlie Skelton’s 2012 investigation into the making of pornographic films. The common thread is that both those working in call centers (customer service representatives) and on the sets of pornographic films invariably need to fake emotions through performance in order to suggest the sincerity involved in their work. However, genuine feelings of attraction are not excluded from the conception of contemporary labor: affectiveness is bluntly sexualized for the food chain Pret a Manger, where management seems to have been happy to waive the cost of the occasional cup of coffee if it will firm up flirtatious interactions between customer and waiter or waitress (Stephens 2015).