Madonna, supermodels, hard bodies, strong women and vulnerable men. It’s hard to think about the 1980s and 1990s without thinking of photographer Herb Ritts. And it’s hard to think of Ritts without thinking of L.A., which is why the title of the retrospective of his work that opened Tuesday at the J. Paul Getty Museum, “Herb Ritts: L.A. Style,” is fitting.
Despite (or perhaps because) he was largely self-taught, and worked in Los Angeles, Ritts, who died of AIDS complications in 2002, was able to develop a distinctive style that bridged the gap between art and commerce.
“He incorporated the L.A. landscape, the sea and surf into his work,” says curator Paul Martineau, pointing to a photograph Ritts took for Versace in 1990, of a model and a diaphanous gown braving the desert wind. His favorite time of day to shoot was 3 to 6 p.m., when he was able to capture that magic L.A. light and create the sense of warmth that radiates from every frame.
Martineau worked with the Herb Ritts Foundation on the exhibition, editing 1,200 boxes of photographs down to 87, some never before published. Featured alongside examples of his magazine covers and commercial videos, they highlight Ritts’ legacy in fashion, portraiture and nudes, and show how he culled inspiration from old masters such as Botticelli, Umberto Boccioni, and photographers including Philippe Halsman and Edward Weston, many of whom were represented in the books found in his personal library after his death.
When it came to fashion photography, Ritts helped put L.A. on the map as the premier destination in the world for shooting fashion editorials and advertisements. Malibu, Point Dume, the dry lake bed at El Mirage near Palmdale and the Santa Monica Pier were some of his favorite locations to achieve the pointillist and chiaroscuro-like shadows on the skin that were his favorite effects.
“It was a new look that the fashion establishment hadn’t seen before,” Martineau says. “And his interest in the nude and his location here make sense with the emphasis in L.A. on body culture.”
He worked with all the supermodels of the time, including Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista and Cindy Crawford, this last of whom Ritts photographed wearing a goddess-like gown in Malibu in 1993 for a Ferré catalog. “He is hiding the back leg behind the front leg, and you get this sinuous S-curve happening, which taps into Renaissance culture. She’s slightly askew, which creates asymmetry and a sense of playfulness,” Martineau explains.
Ritts wasn’t afraid to go against what was suggested by the fashion directors, and indeed, Vogue editor Anna Wintour is quoted in the exhibition catalog saying that Ritts “wasn’t as interested in the clothes as he was the texture of the skin.”
Much of Ritts’ legacy lies in his celebrity portraiture. (He shot more than 200 magazine covers in his lifetime.) Who can forget the 1986 portrait of Madonna on the cover of her “True Blue” album with her head thrown back, her creamy skin and blond hair contrasting with the tough, black leather biker jacket pulled down around her shoulders? Or the exuberant shot of Michael Jackson on the Jan. 9, 1992, cover of Rolling Stone magazine, wearing a white tank top, smiling, with his face cast down and his hair pulled back; he never looked sexier. (“When Michael Jackson saw it, he called Ritts and asked if he was trying to ruin his career, which just goes to show how wrong he was about his own image,” Martineau says.)
Or the shots of Richard Gere, playing the hunky mechanic with a car on a lift behind him, taken in San Bernardino in 1977? Even Gere himself admits in the gallery’s audio guide that those images helped launch his career.
“There is a great sense of architecture to this picture, which was taken before Herb even knew he was going to be a photographer,” says Martinaeu. “He balances the softness of Richard with the hardness of the lift, and the diagonal lines that go between Richard’s arm, the fin of the car and his cigarette really energize the picture.”
Ritts had a knack for catching the essence of celebrities’ personalities, which made fans feel like they had a connection to them in a way that was unique before the days of 24/7 reality shows and over postings on Twitter.
“Celebrity portraits in old Hollywood were taken with elaborate lighting and makeup. They were very staged,” says Martineau. “But Ritts complicated the issue by showing the back of people’s heads [see the portrait of the back of fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier’s blond head taken in 1990] or obscuring their faces so they were not instantly recognizable” [the 1990 photo of Sinéad O’Connor’s bald head, with eyes closed, which was more about form than showcasing her fame].
It was interesting to learn that Ritts grew up in Los Angeles next door to the actor Steve McQueen, who was such a close family friend, he would show up unannounced to visit. “He had an understanding of people who were famous from an early age,” says Martineau. (And no doubt, an understanding of how powerful the vision of celebrity disarmed can be.)
Eventually, Ritts’ work made him a celebrity himself. He had a $1 million contract with Conde Nast, could earn up to $40,000 a day for commercial shoots and charge $60,000 a day for expenses.
He was Madonna’s preferred photographer, so she tapped him to film her video “Cherish” in 1989. Ritts used a hand-held camera to capture the pop star frolicking on the beach in Santa Monica. “He filmed it in color, but the water was so cold, it drained the color from her skin and one of the ‘mer-men’ had hypothermia, so they decided to use it in black-and-white,” Martineau says.
Ritts also made videos for Chris Isaak and Janet Jackson, commercials for Guess, Calvin Klein and Levi’s, all incorporating the same natural environments, statuesque bodies and sense of movement found in his photographs.
Although Ritts wasn’t very sporty himself, he admired people who were, photographing dancers and athletes for personal as well as commercial projects, including Greg Louganis, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Arnold Schwarzenegger (when he was a bodybuilder).
He developed an ability to analyze the male nude from a variety of angles and create compositions taking inspiration from 1950s male physique magazines and classic images of the nude from Greek mythology and antiquity.
“It was a short range of time, from 1984 to 1992, that he was doing great experimentation with the male nude, showing it in ways that were commercially appealing, says Martineau. “That led to the idea that straight men could be seen as vulnerable, and could have a whole range of expression.”
Ritts’ last shoot was in 2002 with Ben Affleck for Vanity Fair.
“Herb Ritts: L.A. Style” is at the J. Paul Getty Museum through Aug. 26.
Here are some of my favorite Herb Ritts images and the exhibit is pretty amazing!