August 13, 1952– Herb Ritts:
“I think knowing people by first names, not by what they do sexually, is really what it’s about. Not being afraid. Fear is the enemy. I’ve always been comfortable with being gay.”
Herb Ritts is one of my favorite contemporary photographers. Photography is a medium for which I have a passion and Ritts is an American master. He is a classicist in the manner of the great George Platt Lynes and George Hurrell, but with his own particular contemporary spin on portraiture, forgoing the staged settings and color of Annie Lebowitz. I love the work of all the photographers I have mentioned, along with Helmut Newton and Bruce Weber, but Ritts was a gay man of my own generation and his pictures and subjects speak to me. Highly skilled and original, Ritts was entirely self-taught.
Ritts grew up in Brentwood with swimming pools and movie stars. As a kid, his next-door neighbor, Steve McQueen, would take him for rides on the back of his motorcycle.
“Coming from California and growing up where I did, I’ve always had a fondness for an innate sensitivity to light, texture, and warmth.”
Ritts’ images celebrate the beauty of the human body, especially the male body. He created stylish, unorthodox portraits of favorite celebrities. He was also a beauty and a star himself, achieving nearly as much fame as those gorgeous subjects he photographed.
His work graced not only the covers and editorial spreads of such magazines as Vogue, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Elle, and Harper’s Bazaar, but also album covers, advertisements, commercials, and music videos. The videos are among the most iconic of all time: Cherish by Madonna, Wicked Game for Chris Isaac, Britney Spears’ Don’t Let Me Be The Last To Know, and ‘N Sync’s Gone.
Ritts claimed that his success with B&W photography stemmed from a single photograph he happened to take of his friend Richard Gere, mostly unknown at the time, while they were waiting for a tire to be changed at a service station in the California desert. That photograph was ultimately used for publicity when Gere starred in American Gigolo (1980) and both men’s careers received an enormous boost because of it.
His photographs are witty, but never camp. I’ll never forget coming up out of the subway station to face that giant homoerotic fantasy of Marky Mark in his Calvins hung high over Time Square. Remember the iconic Vanity Fair cover of Cindy Crawford shaving k.d. lang?
I own an anthology of Ritts’s photographs cleverly titled Herb Ritts (2000) and even more have been published: Men/Women (1989), Notorious (1992), Africa (1994), and Work (1997). Major retrospectives of his works have been well-hung in museums around the world.
Ritts was always candid about his own gayness. He realized that he was gay while he was in college. When he came out to his parents, they were accepting and supportive. In 1993, he appeared on an NBC special The Gay 90s. After the special aired, he received many letters from gay young people about coming out. Ritts claimed that he never set out to be a role model and he stated:
“You get some of these letters and realize how important it is that there be encouragement for young gay people.”
Ritts took his last breath in December 2002, taken by the plague. He was only 50 years old. After he was diagnosed with HIV, he kept his status a secret out of concern that his mother not worry about his health. After his passing, his representatives released a short statement to the press saying only that Ritts had succumbed to “complications of pneumonia.”
Pugnacious pundits Andrew Sullivan and Michelangelo Signorile took up the issue. Signorile:
“It was downright creepy to see a Reagan-era euphemism for AIDS pop up as the cause of Ritts’ death in obituary after obituary. Once again, this is a disease that dare not speak its name.”
“Was Ritts’ pneumonia a freak and dangerous strain that is newsworthy in its own right, like Jim Henson’s, or was it HIV-related? And do newspapers have some responsibility to tell us which? It seems to me that when an openly gay guy dies at 50 years old of pneumonia, any decent editor would ask a simple follow-up. Or are they still colluding in the shame that some still attach to an HIV diagnosis?”
Ritts had actually been very open and supportive of HIV/AIDS charities and Gay Rights causes. Of course, with HIV, being “out” is not the same thing as being out as Poz. Ritts’ career was built on idolizing beautiful bodies which was the antithesis to the destruction of the body brought by the virus in the 1980s and 1990s. He was a photographer who brought homoeroticism to the mainstream and celebrated muscled flesh, and it would have been major news that had been sick with HIV. Sullivan’s and Signorile’s ire was aimed at the press, not the artist.
In fact, Ritts was an early and strong HIV/AIDS advocate. He helped Elizabeth Taylor start her amfAR organization, donating $1 million from the shots he took of her 1991 wedding to Larry Fortensky. He had been on the advisory board of the Elton John AIDS Foundation and generously donated photos and money to both organizations. Ritts was never afraid to have his name associated with the disease.
His best pal Gere says:
“He just went into overdrive. I don’t know if it was a sense of, ‘If I’ve got something to do, I’ve gotta do it now & leave it as my legacy.’ Or if it was, ‘I’m going to keep working so I don’t think about this.”
Ritts left behind his longtime partner Erik Hyman, an entertainment lawyer who is currently married to Max Mutchnick, one of the creators of Will & Grace. And he left his large body of work. His images are managed by The Herb Ritts Foundation which provides funds for HIV/AIDS research and for the advancement of photography as an art form.
Narrowing down a few pieces of his work is not an easy task. Go to his terrific website: HERBRITTS.COM and spend some time absorbing his unique viewpoint.
A current show, Herb Ritts: The Rock Portraits is showing through September at The Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia, featuring photographs of the late great David Bowie and Prince, along with Bono, Britney and Bruce and other great artists that are still with us. Ritts shot these intimate portraits for Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair.
“You’re trying to get to one moment with one frame that eventually may speak for your generation.”