WARNING: Some of the images and language in this story are sexually graphic and disturbing.
(CNSNews.com) -- On June 20, 2007, then-Sen. Barack Obama (D.-Ill.), who was seeking the Democratic presidential nomination at the time, hosted a “portrait session” in his U.S. Senate office where he posed for and with Terry Richardson, a man already well-known, as the flyleaf of a coffee-table collection of his work put it, as the photographer who “took 1970s porn esthetic and made it fashion chic.”
“Who uses his fashion money to fund an X-rated website? Yes, Richardson,” said the flyleaf to the 2004 book Terryworld, published by Taschen Books.
“And who can’t resist getting his clothes off and jumping in front of his own lens? Well, that would be Terry Richardson as well,” said the flyleaf. “Welcome to ‘Terryworld,’ the land restraint forgot. Porn stars, super models, transsexuals, hillbillies, friends, pets and celebrities all do for his lens what they’ll do for no other. And if any of them later wonder why they did it, just blame it on ‘Terryworld,’ where taboos are null and void, and fashion finds sex a perfect fit.”
It also includes a photo of an apparently naked Richardson engaging in some kind of physical contact with a sheep.
Olivier Zahm, the Parisian editor of Purple magazine, says in the book, “Let’s be honest. Terry’s pictures are definitely not feminist. They are as politically ‘incorrect’ as pictures get. He is not glamorizing women’s power, beauty or strength. He is more portraying female beauty from a male perspective.”
In the book’s introduction, written by Dian Hanson, Richardson is quoted as saying, “People in fashion were saying, ‘If I see one more picture of a girl with her legs spread… He’s a misogynist, he’s a porn guy.’ So hey, I’ll spread my legs too. I’ll be the object. The thought of people masturbating to me, or to pictures I take, is great. That’s a wonderful inspiration to give someone.”
Obama’s “portrait session” with Richardson in the Hart Senate Office Building was set up for Vibe magazine, which ran some of Richardson’s photos of Obama along with the cover article for its September 2007 issue. One of these photos showed Richardson and Obama shaking hands, smiling—and each giving a thumbs-up sign to the camera, which Richardson regularly does with his models. (Richardson later posted that same photo on his own website after Obama was reelected in November 2012.)
Writer Jeff Chang, who authored the September 2007 Vibe cover story, interviewed Obama at his Senate office on May 23, 2007, but the photo shoot did not take place then.
In an August 8, 2007 interview with National Public Radio, Vibe editor Danyel Smith described how elated she was when the magazine was able to follow-up on Chang’s interview by scheduling Terry Richardson’s photo session with Obama at Obama’s Senate office.
Smith explained that the magazine’s desire to feature Obama was part of its “coverage of what we call leadership issues in the country.”
“And so we just started thinking, what about Obama?” Smith told NPR. “What does he mean to our readership? And we just said we were going to go for it. We didn't know if we could get it, if he'd be interested in it. But it was when we got the interview we were really excited. But when we got the portrait session, that's when we were pretty much jumping up and down. And it's been a fantastic experience.”
“Well, the pictures are kind of spicy,” said NPR’s Michel Martin. “But what was it about the photos that took it over the top for you?”
“We were in the senator's offices down in Washington, D.C., and we were trying to get him to loosen up,” said Smith.
“But, yeah, it was just great,” Smith continued. “Terry Richardson, who shot the photos, and Robin Forest, our photo editor, they got him to look at his watch. This is something that we wanted to do. There’s a thing in hip-hop music where, you know, is it time? It’s time. Looking at my Gucci, it’s about that time. What time is it? There’s always a sort of cool thing related to the sort of looking at your watch like you have somewhere to go. And since one of his campaign slogans is it's Obama’s time--his supporters tend to hold those placards up--we just wanted that headline.”
Robin Harmon, who was credited by Vibe as the groomer for the Obama-Richardson photo shoot, confirmed to CNSNews.com that it took place in Obama’s Senate offices.
Vibe’s September 2007 issue used six of the photos Richardson took of Obama that day. The magazine had two versions with different covers. One cover featured Obama with his tie loosened and his jacket off, looking at his watch. The other featured a more serious Obama, with his tie tightened and his jacket on.
The table-of-contents page featured a photo of Obama rolling up his left sleeve; another page featured a photo of Obama and Richardson together, smiling, shaking hands and holding their thumbs up.The article itself included a close-up of Obama’s face and a photo of Obama smiling and with his hands in his pockets.
The headline for the article was: “Ladies and Gentlemen, (Is This) the Next President of the United States (?).” It also included the sub-head: “Photographed by Terry Richardson on June 20, 2007 in Washington, D.C.”
Did Obama, his Senate staff, or his campaign staff know about Richardson’s reputation as the man who took the “porn esthetic and made it fashion chic” when Obama invited him into his office for the June 20, 2007 photo shoot?
A quick Lexis-Nexis search at the time would have turned up multiple items warning of the graphic nature of Richardson’s work.
For example, a week before Richardson showed up at the Hart Senate Office Building to do his portrait session with Obama, Penthouse magazine put out a press release announcing that its July issue would have a “redesigned centerfold” that featured a perforation, making it easier to rip out of the magazine.
“Our readers don't necessarily want to cut to the chase,” said this June 13 announcement from Penthouse. “This new perforated centerfold is a great and natural addition to the magazine and we are honored that the debut centerfold was photographed by one of today's best photographers, Terry Richardson.”
The Sept. 10, 2006 edition of the Sunday Mail (South Australia) reported, “A new national advertising campaign portraying childlike young women in sexually explicit poses has outraged childhood and family groups. The Lee Jeans advertisements suggest prostitution, pornography and oral sex and the models involved, although aged in their 20s, appear to be much younger. Australian Childhood Foundation chief executive officer Dr. Joe Tucci said the pictures were a ‘horrific’ representation of young people in sexually explicit poses. He called on the Advertising Standards Bureau to ban the billboard and magazine advertisements, shot by American photographer Terry Richardson.”
The July 15, 2006, Sydney Morning Herald reported, “If you subscribe to the theory that sex sells in advertising, Terry Richardson is definitely your man. Best known for louche imagery that blurs the lines between photography and pornography, the 41-year-old American coaxes models into his studio to strike poses that no doubt shock their parents.”
When the Terryworld book was published in 2004, Richardson also had an art exhibit entitled “Terrywood” in New York City. The Observer magazine ran a cover story on the exhibit on Oct. 17, 2004. The headline: “Good Clean Fun? He's the former junkie punk who put the filth into fashion. Now, alongside his X-rated ad campaigns and sleazy shoots for glossy magazines, photographer Terry Richardson wants his art to be taken seriously.”
“His name is Terry Richardson, and the whole show consists of self-made images of Terry thrusting, rucking, prodding, pumping and, sometimes, grinning at the camera like a nerd let loose in porno heaven,” said the article. “‘Terryworld’ is a strange and contradictory place where art and fashion and pornography converge, and where, for the time being at least, pornography is the dominant aesthetic.”
“The girls who now come knocking on the door of Terry Richardson's studio to take part in what he calls his 'spontaneous sex acts' may be young or impressionable, exhibitionist or insecure, or all of the above, but they are all too eager and willing to perform for his camera,” says the article.
So, did Obama or his staff know about this?
Jeff Chang wrote in the September 2007 Vibe article that when he interviewed Obama in his Senate office on May 23—a month before the Terry Richardson photo shoot—he dealt with Obama’s then-press secretary Ben LaBolt.
“Behind closed doors, aides are working feverishly on a major lobbying-/ethics-reform bill the senator has sponsored,” wrote Chang. “Ben LaBolt, Obama’s press secretary, says, sighing, ‘These are the days my coffeepot is full all day.’”
CNSNews.com contacted LaBolt by voicemail and e-mail and asked him if then-Sen. Obama’s presidential campaign or Senate staff was familiar with Terry Richardson’s reputation for “porn esthetic” photography before the 2007 “portrait session” in Obama’s Senate office. CNSNews.com also asked if LaBolt believes Richardon’s photography degrades women, and whether he believes, given the way Richardson presents women, Obama should express regret for having given credibility to Richardson by posing with him. LaBolt did not respond.
CNSNews.com put the same questions via e-mail to David Axelrod, who was Obama’s chief presidential campaign strategist at the time of the Richardson photo shoot. Tim Skoczek at Axelrod Strategies emailed a response on Axelrod’s behalf. Skoczek said, “I appreciate your reaching out and giving David the opportunity to speak for your piece, but he has no comment.”
CNSNews.com also sent the following questions to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney:
1) Was then-Sen. Obama’s presidential campaign or Senate staff familiar with Terry Richardson reputation for “porn chic” photography before they scheduled Obama’s 2007 “portrait session” with Richardson? If not, why not?
2) Does President Obama regret that the campaign let that “portrait session” take place?
3) Does President Obama believe that Terry Richardson’s photography degrades women?
4) Given the credibility he helped give to Richardson by posing for and with him, do you believe President Obama should express regret for having done so given the sexually graphic nature of Richardson’s photography and the way he presents women?
Despite several phone calls and e-mails over the course of four days, the White House did not respond.
CNSNews.com also tried to contact Terry Richardson for comment but he did not respond.
According to a March 2, 2012 article in The New York Times, Richardson stopped giving interviews in 2010, saying that his work should “speak for itself.”
Michael W. Chapman contributed to this report.