Autumn 1999

Erotic portfolio or ‘artcore’ porn?

While pornography invades the mainstream, a glossy magazine treats sexual imagery with unashamed delight

Critique by Rick Poynor

Richardson magazine is a coffee-table showstopper and that is where I first encountered it, next to the art and fashion mags on the reception area coffee table of one of London’s most durable graphic stylists. To say that Richardson’s signals were provocatively mixed would be selling it short. From a first glance at its cover, it was clear that it offered an unusual fusion of art, luxury, editorial ambition and porn.

Let’s start at the top. That pink masthead, spanning the full width of the cover – a surname? Yes, it belongs to Andrew Richardson, the editor-in-chief. But it is also, perhaps, an urbane kind of euphemism, a glammed-up version of ‘John Thomas’, ‘todger’, or ‘dick(son)’. You can’t escape that reading, because under the masthead there is a woman with blonde tussled locks, hard stare, pierced navel, huge breasts with frank bikini lines, and porn-star pout. The issue number, A1, is printed with lascivious precision across her chest and Japanese-only cover lines in a hot pink circle (got that?) complete the tease.

Richardson has the heft, the spine-width and the glossy, dressed-to-the-nines self-confidence of a title from Condé Nast. For a first issue, it is beautifully put together and cleverly paced. It’s designed, produced and published in Tokyo by a company called Little More, though the editing process is a bit of a mystery. Andrew Richardson turned out to be based in New York, but proved elusive when phoned. He may be the dishevelled fellow shown on page seven next to the reclining cover star, who toys with her own nipple. Then again, the rubric ‘Editor’s Picture’ may just mean that it’s an image he likes.

Certainly the magazine as a whole has a connoisseurial feel. The front is a collection of curios: a rave for Amos Vogel’s underground classic, Film as a Subversive Art, a Q&A with a female anthropologist (‘a woman’s submission is a very aggressive act’), a poem about shampoo bottles as dildos. But its idiosyncrasies are a sign of its authenticity as the expression of its editor’s sensibility and taste, and that makes it quite different from the manipulative one-size-fits-all fantasyland of Loaded, Maxim and FHM. If Richardson is fascinated by the commercialisation of sex – there’s an interview with American porn star Jenna Jameson; a grainy photo-report on erotic dancing – it doesn’t leer at its subjects and it isn’t prurient. It displays sexual imagery with a mixture of wonder and unashamed aesthetic delight. It can find space for anarchist writer Stewart Home on the male gaze, and the artist Richard Prince.

At a time when pornography is invading mainstream media, this is a challenging position to take. Is it acceptable to show sexual pictures? If so, what kind? In which contexts? How explicit? (Richardson resorts to cute masking effects when body parts exceed the limits of the law.) A recent issue of British GQ carried a lavishly illustrated feature on an American porn star who took on 620 men in an eight-hour marathon. By her own admission this was a ‘freak show’ and its presence in the pages of a magazine that apparently sees itself as a leader raises profound questions about the nature of exploitation. The problem with pornography’s appropriation by mass media is precisely that it isn’t the real thing, neither sex nor pornography. It’s possible to believe that we should be free to see uncensored sexual imagery (if we want it) while questioning the cynical reduction of sexual desire to sleazy sexist spectacle and reliable sales tool among the ads for watches, cars and eau de toilette.

Richardson, by contrast, is prepared to look at sex for what it is. A collection of black and white photos – ‘Lost and found’ – has the same poignant strangeness as the snapshots in Amsterdam’s Sex Museum; you are suddenly confronted with evidence from the hidden universe of other people’s sexual behaviour, fantasies and needs. At the back, an announcement seeks ‘amateur porn positions and poses’. A ‘readers’ wives’ for the visually literate – or something more interesting? Richardson’s first issue gives the finger to the slickly marketed and spiritually inert world of mass-market pseudo-porn.

Launch issue of Richardson, 1998

Art director: Laura Genninger

Design: Studio 191

First published in Eye no. 33 vol. 9, 1999.

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.


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