Terry Richardson pushed fashion over the edge into sleaze | Barbara Ellen

Terry Richardson with a copy of his book, ‘TerryWorld’.
Terry Richardson with a copy of his book, ‘TerryWorld’. Photograph: Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

A number of fashion publications and brands have announced that they will no longer work with the photographer Terry Richardson, who has been accused of sexually inappropriate behaviour with young models going back years. While celebrities have been distancing themselves from him, Richardson has been dropped by UK Condé Nast titles (US Vogue announced it wouldn’t use him in 2014), as well as fashion houses such as Valentino and Bulgari.

Fashion commentator Caryn Franklin, who has been complaining about Richardson (or trying to) since 2013, says that, since the Harvey Weinstein scandal, there have been concerns about brand damage. However, prior to that, the bad experiences of (disposable?) models were largely dismissed, as the likes of Richardson were seen as untouchable.

There have been myriad accounts of models arriving at Richardson’s shoots and being coerced into performing (simulated or actual) sex acts. Richardson suggested to one subject, Jamie Peck, that they make tea out of the tampon she was wearing and then egged her on into giving him a hand job, as others in the studio cheered. Many other models have been pressured into engaging in sexual activity, either with “Uncle Terry” or his friends. One model says that she refused to fellate Richardson, but another model agreed and was ejaculated upon for the photographs.

Lord knows why Richardson likes to feature himself and his genitals so much in his work (to my untrained eye, he resembles Joe 90 crossed with Albert Steptoe and that’s just his face). But no one could deny that Richardson has stayed very loyal to what appears to be his one big creative idea – turning everything into an ironic porn shoot. Nor does Richardson deny it – he says that what he does is often sexually explicit, but it’s also consensual. While that might be technically correct, there appears to be an inherent power imbalance. Younger models might have not wanted to appear a “buzzkill” in front of the famous, influential (suddenly naked) photographer and his whooping, snickering crony-enablers. I’m going to take a wild guess that the A-list celebrities Richardson worked with were treated with a lot more respect.

The other point that Richardson and his admirers always liked to make was that he was an “edgy artist”. This is where it starts to be about even more than what happened to the models. It becomes about the industry that Richardson worked in and its longstanding hunger for “edgy”, which, in turn, relates to a wider cultural appetite for “edgy”.

Sometimes, edgy can mean a valid pushing of artistic boundaries. At other times, it’s just the routine sexing-up of a product – pretty much every bottle of perfume/aftershave/fizzy pop has the “edgiest” ad campaign that manufacturers can get away with. Then there’s the dark side of edgy that Richardson seemed to specialise in, which amounted to the legitimising of placing young females into lewd, disorienting situations in the name of art. Indeed, looking at Richardson’s work, as well as making everything a porn shoot, he also appears to have dealt in a bizarre form of what could be termed large-scale revenge porn, taking images that left many of his subjects so compromised that many would have had no choice but to try to brazen it out or at least stay silent.

The general rule seems to be that because it was “edgy”, anything was allowed. Perhaps this explains how, despite the grotty stories about Richardson, he continued to be indulged and feted, industry-wide, for so long. It seems that clients either wanted to buy into his brand of “ultra-edgy” or were terrified that not using him would mean that they might end up labelled “not edgy enough”. Perhaps this is a wake-up call, not just for the circles that Richardson moved in, but for society as a whole. Sometimes, edgy really does mean edgy, but at other times it could serve as camouflage for a particular vile mentality.