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Based in Los Angeles, Herb Ritts is very much an image maker for our time, a photographer whose assured eye, fertile imagination, and affirmative spirit translate our culture’ s dreams and desires into strong, memorable pictures. As a photographer of fashion and celebrity, Ritts has created memorable covers and spreads for Vogue, Vanity Fair, and Rolling Stone, among others, as well as album covers, movie advertisements, music videos, and commercials. Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, The GAP, and Giorgio Armani are among his many corporate clients.
In the past decade, Ritts has also published several books that bring together photographs around a particular theme. His images capture the beauty of strength and youth, the appeal of the human body, the radiance of California sun and sand, the maniacal grin of Jack Nicholson and the tattooed torso of basketball star Dennis Rodman. Many of these photographs were created independently; others arose from Ritts’ s commercial assignments, chosen from the hundreds taken on a given shoot or made at his own initiative immediately after a job. Fine art, design, fashion, photographic media, and global marketing are all dynamically connected in today’ s complex culture, and Ritts’ s work exemplifies our broadening notion of artistic activity.
Born in 1952, Ritts grew up in southern California, and his career began in the late 1970s with informal portraits of friends in the movie industry. The photographer himself attributes his first success to shots of actor Richard Gere taken on a desert excursion that ended with a flat tire. Ritts mastered his craft and developed his personal aesthetic photographing men’ s and women’ s fashions, often for Italian magazines, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. His sequences frequently had a narrative theme and a specific period setting. A fashion spread on jeans and overalls echoes the early Gere portrait: Ritts rented a fifties garage in Los Angeles and cast his muscular models as greasy garage mechanics. Ritts’ s eye for period style and his instinct for the timing of fashion revivals enhance his ability to make pictures that fire the imagination.
Ritts is drawn to clean, pure lines and strong forms; the graphic simplicity of his images allows them to be read and felt instantaneously. In Backflip, the somersaulting body folds into a flat, symmetrical shape; we enjoy recognizing it simultaneously as a weightless abstract design and as a solid athletic body suspended in space.
For Ritts, as for many photographers, the nude is a central subject. Ritts’ s images—of models, of athletes and bodybuilders, of Maasai women in Africa—celebrate the human body as strong, sensuous, and beautiful. He takes pleasure in evoking the tactile appeal of surface textures, showing the body flecked with grains of sand, veiled in sheer fabric, caked with drying mud, or exposed to cascading water. While some figures exult in their male or female identity, in other images the emphasis is on the shapes of limbs and muscles or the tender connection of intertwined bodies. A recent series of the dancer/choreographer Bill T. Jones suggests a classical frieze, as Jones’ s powerful body moves through poses that are, like dance itself, both abstract and expressive. Among Ritts’ s books, Men/Women (1989) is an expression of his feeling for the beauty and sensuality of both sexes. Duo (1991) is a sequence of studies of a gay couple, one a former Mr. Universe.
Many recurring themes in Ritts’ s work—bold simplicity of form, the nude, the rich and varied textures of the human body and the earth, the links between human beings—are explored in a new context in the book Africa (1994). Traveling to East Africa, Ritts savored a working situation unconnected to fashion or fame. His photographs of the Maasai people, of animals, and of the landscape they inhabit create a timeless world of vast spaces and ancient ways.
Ritts’ s portraits of famous figures, from Madonna to Dizzy Gillespie, often have a whimsical quality, creating the sense of an intimate encounter with a larger-than-life personality. The subjects may spoof their public personae or “play themselves,” reminding us of the degree to which celebrity in our media-saturated culture decrees constant performance. Ritts presents some subjects in terms of trademark features or associations, transforming a personal detail into an emblematic symbol: Elizabeth Taylor’ s eyes and diamond, Mick Jagger reduced to the word “MICK” spelled in studs on an old stage outfit, comedian Sandra Bernhard represented by only her open mouth.
At other times, Ritts catches us off guard with an unexpected twist. Madonna is renowned both for her glamour and her outrageousness, and Ritts captures these elements in pictures of her vamping as a classic sex goddess and mugging in Mickey Mouse ears. But his images of the famous blonde stretched and distorted by fun-house mirrors or in eighteenth-century powdered wig take us by surprise. Ritts’ s portrait of Glenn Close partially made up for her role as silent film star Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard is an image of illusion and role-playing stripped bare, while close-ups of politician George Wallace, choreographer Merce Cunningham, and director John Huston confront us with the tracks life has left on these faces. As critic Ingrid Sischy says in the exhibition catalogue, to create the celebrity images Ritts makes, “you have to be savvy on all fronts . . . you have to be a diplomat, a psychologist, a playmate, and a great persuader . . . Because he has such a natural grasp of [all this], as well as of all the technical aspects, Ritts can pull off the equivalent of miracles—photographs that become icons.”