Herb Ritts /   Herbert Ritts

United States 1952 - 2002



Herb Ritts
Herbert Ritts
United States
December 4, 2014

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…

The Images of Herb Ritts

Born in a prosperous Jewish family, Ritts began his career in their furniture company.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] 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)

Launching the Stars and Super Models

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.[4]


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”.[5] 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.[6]

Death and Legacy

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.[7] When it was perfectly fine to appreciate beauty for beauty’s sake.

Herb Ritts lived and worked in Los Angeles.


  1. Anonymous. Herb Ritts, Wikipedia [August 28,2016]
  2. Bellafante G. Herb Ritts, Photographer Of Celebrities, Is Dead at 50, The New York Times [August 28,2016]
  3. Abrams M. Lens that defined a generation, The Jewish Chronicle [August 28,2016]
  4. Schonauer D. How Herb Ritts Created the Idols We Deserved, The Huffington Post [August 28,2016]
  5. herbritts.com
  6. Yarborough C. ‘Herb Ritts: The Rock Portraits’: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s captivating exhibit spotlights photographer’s skill at capturing stars’ essence (review), Cleveland.com [August 28,2016]
  7. Christian S. Herb Ritts: old-school glamour’s last stand, The Guardian [August 28,2016]

YearExhibition TitleGallery/MuseumSolo/Group 
2015Something For EveryoneHamiltons Gallery, LondonGroup
2015HE: The Hergott Shepard Photography CollectionUMMA - The University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, MIGroup
2014Herb Ritts - Supermodel: Stephanie, Cindy, Christy, Tatjana, NaomiEdwynn Houk Gallery, New York City, NYSolo
2014LoveCamera Work, BerlinGroup
2014The Cal - Collezione PirelliPalazzo Reale, MilanGroup
2014Beyond Mapplethorpe: Selections from The Kinsey InstituteGrunwald Gallery of Art at Indiana University, Bloomington, INGroup
2014The Human Image - Picasso, Matisse, WarholNagoya - Boston Museum of Fine Arts, NagoyaGroup
2014Accrochage LibreGalerie GZ, ParisGroup
2014Over the Rainbow: Seduction and IdentityMuseum of Contemporary Canadian Art,Toronto, ONGroup
2014The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier From the Sidewalk to the CatwalkBarbican Art Gallery, LondonGroup
2014Made for Magazines: Iconic 20th-Century PhotographsMFAH - Museum of Fine Arts Houston,Houston, TXGroup
2013Herb Ritts: Beauty and CelebrityOklahoma City Museum of Art, Oklahoma City, OKSolo
2013Herb Ritts LA StyleThe John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, FLSolo
2013Camera Work RocksCamera Work, BerlinGroup
201350 Years Of Grit And GlamourChris Beetles Art Gallery, LondonGroup
2013The System of ObjectsDeste Foundation for Contemporary Art, AthensGroup
2013SelectionCWC Gallery, BerlinGroup
2013Face Value: Portraits from The Kinsey InstituteThe Kinsey Institute Gallery, Bloomington, INGroup
2013Coming Into Fashion: A Century of Photography at Conde NastForma - Centro Internazionale di Fotografia, MilanGroup
2012Herb RittsCincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, OHSolo
2012Herb Ritts - From The ArchiveFahey Klein Gallery, Los Angeles, CASolo
2012Herb Ritts: L.A. StyleJ. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CASolo
2012Timeless Beauty: 100 years of fashion photography from Man Ray to Mario TestinoCO Berlin, BerlinGroup
2012WomenStaley-Wise Gallery, New York City, NYGroup
2012Summer SelectionsEdwynn Houk Gallery, New York City, NYGroup
2012The Nude InterpretedStaley-Wise Gallery, New York City, NYGroup
2012Various Artists - From Collectors' ArchivesFahey Klein Gallery, Los Angeles, CAGroup
2012Backyard Oasis: The Swimming Pool in Southern California Photography, 1945-1982Palm Springs Art Museum, Palm Springs, CAGroup
2011Herb RittsEdwynn Houk Gallery, ZurichSolo
2011Herb Ritts - Solo ExhibitHamiltons Gallery, LondonSolo
2011Herb RittsCamera Work, BerlinSolo
2011Herb RittsEdwynn Houk Gallery, New York City, NYSolo
2011Backstage Pass - Faces In Music IiFahey Klein Gallery, Los Angeles, CAGroup
2010Herb Ritts - Twenty-Five YearsFahey Klein Gallery, Los Angeles, CASolo
2010After a Fashion: Classic, Humorous, Subversive…Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago, ILGroup
2010Thanks for Being With Us: Contemporary Art from the Douglas Nielsen CollectionTucson Museum of Art, Tucson, AZGroup
2010By Way of These Eyes – The Sublime, Exotic and Familiar - The Christopher Hyland Collection of PhotographyCape Cod Museum of Art - CCMA, Dennis, MAGroup
2010The naked truthHous Projects, New York City, NYGroup
2010RevealedLeslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, New York City, NYGroup
2009Something for EveryoneHamiltons Gallery, LondonGroup
2009Five Decades Of Passion - Part Two: The Founding Of The Center, 1989–1991Fisher Landau Center For Art, New York City, NYGroup
2009Amsterdam Gaypride 2009Eduard Planting Gallery, AmsterdamGroup
2009Ingres et les modernesMusée Ingres, MontaubanGroup
2009Isabelle Huppert: Woman of Many FacesUCCA - Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, BeijingGroup
2009Fashion PhotographyCorkin Gallery, Toronto, ONGroup
2008Herb Rítts & Horst P HorstRobert Klein Gallery, Boston, MAGroup
2008Photographic FiguresMFA - Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MAGroup
2008Vanity Fair Portraits: Photographs 1913–2008Los Angeles County Museum of Art - LACMA,Los Angeles, CAGroup
2008SaleWessel + O'Connor Fine Art, New York City, NYGroup
2008Las Implicaciones de la Imagen (The implications of image)MUCA Roma - Museo Universitario de Ciencias y Arte, Mexico CityGroup
2007Celebrity Photographs 2007Fay Gold Gallery, Atlanta, GASolo
2007Herb RittsHamiltons Gallery, LondonSolo
2007The Missing Peace: Artists Consider the Dalai LamaYerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, CAGroup
2007The Missing Peace: Artists Consider the Dalai LamaEmory Visual Arts Gallery, Atlanta, GAGroup
2007Visions of VictoryFlint Institute of Arts, Flint, MIGroup
2007Private CollectionsJackson Fine Art, Atlanta, GAGroup
2007Classic Beauty: Part 2 Photographs of the Male NudeThrockmorton Fine Art, Inc., New York City, NYGroup
2007The Missing Peace: Artists Consider the Dalai LamaThe Rubin Museum of Art (RMA), New York City, NYGroup
2007PhotographyBENOOT GALLERY , OostendeGroup
2007Facing the Camera: Portraits of Photographers from the Rhoades CollectionSCAD Museum of Art , Savannah, GAGroup
2007Expressive Bodies: Contemporary Art Photography from The Kinsey InstituteThe Kinsey Institute Gallery, Bloomington, INGroup
2006Herb Ritts: Solo ShowWessel + O'Connor Fine Art, New York City, NYSolo
2006The Missing Peace: Artists Consider the Dalai LamaLoyola University Museum of Art (LUMA),Chicago, ILGroup
2006Der Pirelli-Kalender; Provokation und MythosBerlinische Galerie, BerlinGroup
2006Year Of Tibet PortfolioFahey Klein Gallery, Los Angeles, CAGroup
2005Fay Gold Gallery 25th Anniversary ShowFay Gold Gallery, Atlanta, GAGroup
2005From the Source, Fashion PhotographsCorkin Gallery, Toronto, ONGroup
2005Summer SkinStephen Cohen Gallery, Los Angeles, CAGroup
2005ChronosCesac - Centro Sperimentale per le Arti Contemporanee, CaraglioGroup
2004Why not live for Art?Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery, TokyoGroup
2003Herb Ritts Memorial ExhibitionFahey Klein Gallery, Los Angeles, CASolo
2003Herb Ritts - NRWForum Kultur und Wirtschaft, DusseldorfSolo
2003In Your FaceAlan Koppel Gallery, Chicago, ILGroup
2003SeductionOMC Gallery For Contemporary Art, Huntington Beach, CAGroup
2002Archeology of EleganceDeichtorhallen Hamburg, HamburgGroup
2000Herb RittsPalazzo delle Esposizioni, RomeSolo
2000Herb Ritts - Solo ShowMKG - Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg, HamburgSolo
2000Herb Ritts und Richard CaldicottCamera Work, BerlinGroup
2000Picturing the Modern AmazonNew Museum of Contemporary Art, New York City, NYGroup
1999Herb RittsFondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain, ParisSolo
1999Herb Ritts - WorkKemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, MOSolo
1998Herb RittsRonna and Eric Hoffman Gallery of Contemporary Art, Portland, ORSolo
1998BackstageSerge Sorokko Gallery, San Francisco, CAGroup
1998Waterproof A Prova de AguaCentro Cultural de Belém - CCB, LisbonGroup
1997Herb Ritts - WorkMFA - Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Boston, MASolo
1997Herb RittsArthur Roger Gallery, New Orleans, LASolo
1997WorkFay Gold Gallery, Atlanta, GASolo
1992Figure Form: The Nude in 20th Century PhotographyJan Kesner Gallery, Los Angeles, CAGroup
1991Basel Art Fair- SwitzerlandFay Gold Gallery, Atlanta, GAGroup
1990The Indomitable Spirit: Photographers And Artists Respond In The Time Of AidsICP - International Center of Photography, New York City, NYGroup