Photography isn’t limited to a decisive moment and the ability of a man behind the camera to capture it. Nor it’s going in the direction of staging the entire thing. There is something in between, a place that Herb Ritts knew better than the most. A delicate balance between what he wanted, as a photographer, and what his models wanted. He was able to record the more natural, spontaneous side by elevating the status of the people in front of him from passive objects to subjects active in the process of taking the images. Throughout the ‘80s and the ‘90s, his work was inescapable in popular culture, appearing everywhere from commercials to music videos and magazine covers. Establishing a new style in photography, Ritts took pictures of musicians, politicians, fashion models…
Born in a prosperous Jewish family, Ritts began his career in their furniture company. His father, Herb Ritts Sr., was a businessman and his mother, Shirley, was an interior designer. After studying economics and art history at the Bard College in New York, Ritts returned to LA to work in his family’s company. However, he was sidetracked when he decided to take adult-education classes in photography. Always somehow interested in the field, he got his first camera when his father bought him a Brownie camera for his bar mitzvah, after which Ritts began taking informal photographs of his family and friends. After one of those informal pictures, everything changed. In the late ‘70s, Ritts and his friend Richard Gere, a young and aspiring actor at the time, were driving around the desert when they got a flat tire. Having had to stop at the nearest gas station and wait for their tire to be fixed, the artist took a photo of his friend. As it turned out, the photo showing Gere in a sweaty white vest, low-slung jeans, arms stretched over his head and a cigarette dangling provocatively from his mouth became Ritts’ first published image and ushered his path towards his fame and his future career. (It also helped Gere in achieving the status of an international sex symbol)
The’80s brought a new, over-the-top era, where the make-up was too elaborate, the hair too big, and the figures too distant. Opposed to this dominant style, Ritts felt like a breath of fresh air. His had a magical ability to capture natural looking images and show the people as if they were your perfect neighbors that you never had the chance of living next to. Through the 1980’ and 1990’s, he photographed celebrities. They came to him because he made them look good. It was a beneficial relationship for both sides. Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell, Stephanie Seymour were some of the models that appeared in front of him, and he paved the road for the ‘90s era of world known supermodels. Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vogue, Time, Interview, GQ are just some of the magazines he regularly worked with. As for the Hollywood of the ‘80s, the heavy-duty highly retouched glamor of the ‘60s captured by the photographers such as Clarence Bull, George Edward Hurrell, and Laszlo Willinger was simply out-dated. This New Hollywood was not ruled by big studio executives, but rather by the movie stars and their super agents and super-publicists. In times like this, when just one good front cover could launch the entire career, Ritts became the town’s go-to photographer.
Combining the dramatic, high-key Hollywood portraits of the 1930s and 1940’s by Hurrell with the sculptural, warm-toned photography of Edward Weston, Ritts’ style was unmistakable. The artist stated that “the key element is developing a style that’s yours and experiment with it until you eventually discover what makes sense to you”. He created a powerful look, a look that idealized. Simplicity is a part of the secret. The photographs are reduced to iconographic essentials. (Johnny Depp brandishing his scissor hands) Sometimes there were surreal or even disturbing twists (the image of Djimon Hounsou with an octopus on his head). Suggesting movement, the artist often created a magical effect where the viewers don’t know if something has already happened or something is about to happen. A true sense of mystery. (Madonna’s image with the boxer shorts on her head). Coming from California and growing up where he did, Ritts always had a fondness for an innate sensitivity to light, texture, and warmth. He was one of the first to employ the natural light in his fashion photo-shoots. Understanding that it has evolved from being a just a medium, he embraced the possibilities of photography as art. But, everything put aside – arguably, nothing of his immensely successful career wouldn’t have been possible if he was a different kind of person. Described by his friends as down-to-earth, inventive and friendly, Ritts always did his best when working. The atmosphere was always encouraging. He and his crew were known for telling jokes and helping the subjects relax. His innate ability to persuade people to do anything for him lay at the heart of his work, and yet, not a single one of his subjects did anything they didn’t want to do. Many of his celebrity models let down walls and showed sides of them the viewers rarely glimpse, and it's all because they felt comfortable with Ritts.
Herb Ritts passed on December 26th, 2002 from complications caused by pneumonia. He was HIV positive and had undergone years of experimental therapy. Even prior to his death, the artist expressed his desire to create a foundation that would carry on his passion for photography and his longstanding charitable support for HIV/AIDS research, advocacy, and care. So, a year after his death, the Herb Ritts Foundation was established with a dual role, just as the photographer wanted. Their mission is to advance the art of photography and support HIV/AIDS causes in a manner that reflects the spirit and values exemplified by Herb Ritts during his lifetime. The world itself has changed significantly since he has been gone. His work still holds up as a sumptuous reminder of a much less complicated time, when not everything had to have a meaning. When it was perfectly fine to appreciate beauty for beauty’s sake.