Lens that defined a generation

Herb Ritts got a camera for his barmitzvah. He went on to take the photos that defined celebrity culture


By Melanie Abrams, June 23, 2011
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In black and white: Ritts’s Madonna True Blue profile, Hollywood, 1986.

In black and white: Ritts’s Madonna True Blue profile, Hollywood, 1986.

Herb Ritts had chutzpah. Largely self taught, he became the go-to celebrity and fashion photographer of the 1980s and '90s. As a Californian schoolboy, he persuaded his next door neighbour, who happened to be the Hollywood star Steve McQueen, to host his school prom. Later, while working for his father's furniture business, he blagged his way onto the set of The Champ to photograph Jon Voight, and after a chance meeting with David Hockney, talked the artist into posing for him - it made the front cover of Esquire.

His innate ability to persuade people to do anything for him lay at the heart of his work. "If there was water nearby, someone would be in it. He thought it was hilariously funny," says Mark McKenna, chairman of the Herb Ritts Foundation and Ritts's former assistant and studio manager. He recalls Julia Roberts spontaneously stripping down to her underwear and shrieking as she hit the cold March waters of the Pacific. In another photo, Tom Cruise emerges from the deep in a skin-tight vest.

Ritts's iconic images captured the mood of the times. "He was encapsulating the start of the period when celebrity was defining itself and people were beginning to aspire madly to be famous and beautiful," says Jillian Edelstein, the award-winning portrait photographer.

Famously, he captured the supermodel Cindy Crawford shaving Canadian singer, K D Lang, for the front cover of Vanity Fair. "We never realised it would get such attention. Lesbian groups made T-shirts and posters out of it," says Charles Churchward, author of Herb Ritts: The Golden Hour, A Photographer's Life and His World and former design director of Vanity Fair and American Vogue for which Ritts worked.

Terminator: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Los Angeles, 1991

Terminator: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Los Angeles, 1991

Ritts's cool, classical, black and white aesthetic revolutionised fashion photography, which at the time was dominated by sexually souped-up imagery and lollipop colours. "The 1980s was an OTT era. Hair was too big. Make-up too elaborate. Shoulders too big. Ritts by contrast feels like a breath of fresh air because of his naturalism. He made his girls and boys look like the girls and boys next door that you'd never have the good fortune to live next door to," says Philippe Garner, international head of photographs at Christie's auction house.

Ritts also helped to launch the supermodel phenomenon, taking definitive portraits, including the legendary group shot of Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington and others. He even made images of male nudity and homoeroticism more acceptable, foreshadowing metrosexuality. "His Calvin Klein campaign [which made Mark Wahlberg famous] was the first time a man was shot in underwear in that way, showing his face and body - and in a fun way," says Thierry Loriot, curator of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts which is showing Ritts's images of Madonna, Jean Paul Gaultier and others in a retrospective of the designer.

Now a selection of Ritts's work is on show at the Hamiltons Gallery in London, mixing familiar images with the unseen. The trademark intimacy of these shots captures how comfortable Ritts was around his subjects. Not surprisingly, for Ritts lived among celebrities all his life. Born in Los Angeles in 1952 into a wealthy Jewish family, he counted Marlon Brando and James Garner as well as McQueen as family friends, Judy Garland's daughter as a school classmate, and later hung out with Richard Gere, Crawford and Madonna as well as Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Stars trusted Ritts because he made them look good and did not sensationalise. According to David Friend, editor of creative development at Vanity Fair: "We worked together on the Monica Lewinsky pictures in 1998. Herb put her at ease when everyone was taking advantage of her. His pictures show her on the beach and lying in the grass like a '50s icon. He became a confidante of hers and they even went to the Oscar party together."

He made his subjects part of the process of taking the pictures, rather than an object being recorded, which allowed him to capture a more natural, spontaneous side. "He engaged them and got them excited. He made sure that he always had a charmed crew, who would put on music or tell jokes. He would make them forget that they were in a photo session, making it fun and light," recalls McKenna.

Ritts began taking informal photographs of his family and friends after his father, Herb Sr, who changed the family name from Rittigstein, bought him a Brownie camera for his barmitzvah. His mother, Shirley, encouraged his talent and, according to Crawford, was his driving influence. His career began by accident after snapping Gere, then an unknown aspiring actor, as they waited at a garage to get their flat tyre fixed. The shot of Gere in a sweaty white vest, low-slung jeans, arms stretched over his head and cigarette dangling provocatively from his mouth gave Ritts his first published photo and turned Gere into an international sex symbol.

Friend remembers Ritts as extremely down to earth, inventive and friendly. "He had a sense of optimism that was reflected in his pictures. He would shoot, for example, Brad Pitt with his shirt open on a beach with the blue sky behind them, sky blue water and the light behind him - the pictures felt like a great sunlight. If the magazine wanted someone to be radiant on the cover, Herb was the guy to take the picture."

Ritts reduced his images to iconographic essentials, such as Johnny Depp brandishing his scissor hands or Liz Taylor flashing her diamond. "Ritts's shots are very simple. As Robert Frank [the legendary Jewish American documentary photographer] said to me 'simple is genius'. It's a hard thing to do as the tendency is to over-embellish, but Ritts does it," says Edelstein.

Sometimes there are surreal or even disturbing twists. "His beautiful image of [actor and model] Djimon Hounsou with an octopus on his head could look weird to some," says Loriot.

Movement is often suggested. "It's as if something is about to happen or has happened which creates a mystery that you don't see a lot of. It's a little gesture of the hand, like Madonna with the boxer shorts on her head or his nudes jumping that throws the composition off a bit," says Churchward.

Many of his nudes and partially nude subjects, like the super-toned mechanic in the photograph Fred With Tires, do not seem to human beings, rather gleaming bronze statues. Ritts strong vision of the body beautiful also filtered through to his music videos. His under-stated first video for Madonna's song Cherish broke new ground and two of his later videos for Janet Jackson and Chris Isaak won MTV Video Awards.

Ritts died from complications caused by pneumonia in December 2002, but his contribution to photography continues. The Herb Ritts Foundation helped to establish a permanent space for photography at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and, as Garner, says: "Herb Ritts is among a relatively small pantheon of photographers who have achieved a new perspective and respect for fashion and beauty photography."

Herb Ritts's photos are at Hamiltons Gallery London W1 until August 12. www.hamiltonsgallery.com. The Herb Ritts Foundation is at www.herbritts.com

    Last updated: 10:53am, June 23 2011