Browsing through Herb Ritts: L.A. Style, we are transported through the iconic photographer’s nude and celebrity portraits to a glamorous past –a not so distant one, it being the ‘80s and ‘90s –but a past nonetheless.
Sure, there are a crop of photographers today who make their livelihood by capturing images of naked bodies, but let’s face it –most verge on crass rather than class. Ritts’s nude photography, on the other hand, exudes that rare artistic panache. Think more nostalgic elegance, less ‘70s low-budget porn.
Despite his successful career, Ritts wasn’t always on the path to become the legend that he is today. A Los Angeles native, Ritts worked as a sales representative for his parents’ lucrative furniture business after graduating from Palisades High School in 1970 and studying economics and art history at Bard College in New York. Although he excelled at being a salesman, Ritts lacked a proper outlet for his creative inclinations. So in 1976, he purchased a simple 35-mm camera and began to take portraits of his friends. As luck would have it, his pals were young actors, models and other artsy types who were all part of the Los Angeles scene. A legendary photographer was in the making.
Raised in Brentwood with actor Steve McQueen as his next-door neighbor, Ritts was often in the company of celebrities. He knew how to make his subjects comfortable as he photographed them.
“It’s not the celebrity quality of the person that makes the photograph interesting,” he said. “It’s letting the true person through that makes the photograph interesting and lasting.”
Ritts’s reputation exploded when in 1979, his photograph of then budding actor Richard Gere appeared in Mademoiselle, Vogue and Esquire magazines. Clad in a simple white tank and a pair of jeans with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, the young, then fairly unknown actor posed nonchalantly in front of a tattered car in a deserted gas station. Through this portrait, Hollywood gained a new American hero.
Lacking formal training in photography, Ritts took some evening courses at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. He then purchased a home in the Hollywood Hills where he roomed with top male fashion model Matt Collins. Ritts shot Collins for Harper’s Bazaar Italia under the Santa Monica Pier, producing a photograph that features what would later be known as his signature style: an ingenious use of the golden Southern California light and strong cast shadows. Soon, other magazine editors would take notice.
His body of subjects went on to include high profile personalities like Madonna, Cindy Crawford and Michael Jackson. Not only did he become known as a prime celebrity and fashion photographer, he would also become a leading proponent of a new L.A. style.
Recognizing the advantages of living in the city, he remarks, “Within two hours from where I live, you have mountains and deserts as locations. I like the natural elements that abstract into light, texture, shape and shadow.”
Along with contemporaries Robert Mapplethorpe and Bruce Weber, Ritts ignited a progressive change in male nude portraiture. He captured the male body from various angles, and abstracted it in ways that convey strength and poise. He used similar techniques in his fashion photography as well.
Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour comments that “Ritts wasn’t as interested in the clothes as he was in the texture of beautiful skin.”
This, however, didn’t prevent him from flourishing in the industry. The iconic nude photograph of supermodels Stephanie Seymore, Tatjana Patitz, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell all huddled together is still imprinted on the minds of fashion and non-fashion folks alike 23 years after it was originally taken.
In 1989, the same year that Ritts took this renowned photograph, he was diagnosed with AIDS. This, however, only spurred his creativity as an artist. He began to direct music videos and commercials. Over the course of his career, he would produce 13 music videos for artists that include Mariah Carey, Britney Spears and Michael Jackson, and 15 commercials, including ads for Victoria’s Secret, Chanel and Calvin Klein.
In December 2002, on what would be his last shoot, he photographed Ben Affleck in El Mirage, California for Vanity Fair. With wind blowing hard, stirring up an excessive amount of dust, Ritts developed pneumonia. A week later, on December 26, 2002, he died at the age of 50.
Herb Ritts: L.A. Style, edited by Paul Martineau with an essay by James Crump ($59.95), will be available through Getty Publications in April.
An exhibition, Herb Ritts: L.A. Style, will display the photographer’s iconic works at the Getty Center from April 3 through August 26, 2012.
Click Here for more information about the FREE exhibit!