August 13, 1952– Herb Ritts:
“I think knowing people by first names, not by what they do sexually, are 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 & Ritts is an American master. He is a classicist in the manner of the great George Platt Lynes & George Hurrell, but with a contemporary spin on portraiture, yet forgoing the staged settings & color of Annie Lebowitz. I love the work all the photographers I have mentioned, along with Helmut Newton & Bruce Weber, but Ritts was a gay man of my own generation & his pictures & subjects speak to me. Highly skilled & original, Ritts was entirely self-taught.
Ritts grew up in Brentwood with swimming pools & movie stars, & as a child his next-door neighbor Steve McQueen would take him for rides on the back of his motorcycle.
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 & a star, achieving nearly as much fame as those gorgeous subjects he photographed.
His work graced not only the covers & editorial spreads of such magazines as Vogue, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Elle, & Harper’s Bazaar, but also album covers, advertisements, TV commercials, & music videos. The videos are among the most iconic of all time: Cherish by Madonna, Wicked Game by Chris Isaac, Britney Spears’ Don’t Let Me Be The Last To Know, & ‘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 photo was ultimately used for publicity when Gere starred in American Gigolo (1980) & 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 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) & even more have been published: Men/Women (1989), Notorious (1992), Africa (1994), & 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 & 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 & stated:
“You get some of these letters & realize how important it is that there be encouragement for young gay people.”
Ritts took his last breath in December 2002, taken by HIV pneumonia. He was only 50 years old. After he was diagnosed he kept his status a secret out of concern that his mother not worry about his health. 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.”
He left behind his longtime partner Erik Hyman, an entertainment lawyer & his large body of work. His images are managed by The Herb Ritts Foundation which provides funds for HIV-AIDS research & 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 & spend some time absorbing his unique viewpoint. A current show Herb Ritts is now on display at Museum Of Fine Arts in Boston, through November 8 of this year, 2015.