Herb Ritts was an anomaly in the competitive world of high-fashion photography. Though one of the brightest stars in the 1980s and 1990s, he was based in Los Angeles rather than New York or Paris, where most of his (small) peer group operated. It was one of the things that set him apart, that and his interest in photographs that had the gloss of his commercial work but had aesthetic aspirations as well.
"Herb Ritts: L.A. Style," which includes 80 examples of his work, is on view at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. Among the works are fashion shoots, celebrity portraits and nudes. Line, volume and texture are constants throughout but are most evident in his male nudes, because there are few if any elements besides flesh over bone and muscle, which he uses to dramatic sculptural effect.
Sometimes nudity and celebrity merge, as in the ravishing portraits of dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones and actor Djimon Hounsou. In one, in which only his upper body is visible, Hounsou wears an octopus on his head, its tentacles draped like dreadlocks, the head perched on top with its eye glaring at the viewer. It's bizarre for sure, but the tonal qualities Ritts teases from a gelatin silver print, which has a range of 12 tones from black to white, are stunning, rivaling the superior platinum print process, which has a tonal range of 60.
Ritts' celebrity portraits don't hew to the worshipful literacy of Annie Leibovitz and earlier masters such as Irving Penn and Richard Avedon. The subject's personality is subsumed to physical details and composition.
Light and dark are the stars in the portraits of basketball greats Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. Johnson holds his face in his hands, partially obscuring it, with eyes closed. And those hands! The sides gleam so brightly, they seem about to erupt in little sparks. Jordan, on the other hand, is completely backlit against a wall of glass, his body a dark silhouette reduced to pure form.
Ritts did plenty of more conventional portraits, but the most successful artistically are those with eccentricities. Designer Jean-Paul Gaultier's face, for example, is in shadow with the emphasis on the spiral pattern of his short blond hair. Artist David Hockney stands before a wall of portraits holding one of his mother in front of his face. One of the most straight-on and famous is a profile of Madonna for her True Blue album. It's also the one in which she is the most beautiful version of herself. He imbues her with both vulnerability and glamor as she tilts her head back, neck swanlike and exposed, the natural light creating a lovely curve of shadow beneath her jaw.
Ritts achieved his broadest fame in fashion, of course. This show is less heavy with those images, because the emphasis is on his artistic aspirations. But those that are included reveal how thin the divide has become between art and commerce in the photographic medium. The point of model Cindy Crawford in a Gianfranco Ferre haute couture ball gown was to market a beautiful dress worn by a beautiful woman. But the result was also a beautiful photograph. Ritts loved the California beach and desert and exploited the hard West Coast sunlight. In this image, Crawford vamps on the sand in an exaggerated pose that emphasizes her long legs and lovely shoulders, almost upstaging the dress.
Crawford, who was a good friend of Ritts', is in several more photographs and contributed to the excellent audio tour available at the museum, talking about the day this image was shot and Ritts in general.
Ritts, according to all reports, was greatly liked and admired before his death at 50 in 2002 from AIDS-related illnesses. He was raised in affluence in California (his next-door neighbor was Steve McQueen) and was as comfortable with rich and famous people as were they with him. A great example of his personal charm and popularity is a 1989 photograph of models Crawford, Christy Turlington, Tatjana Patitz, Stephanie Seymour and Naomi Campbell. There they are, five of the most famous women in the world, busy beyond belief and undoubtedly competitive, sitting in an entwined love embrace in Ritts' house.
The backstory was typical of Ritts. After a commercial assignment, he would often utilize a location and crew for a personal shoot and everyone seemed happy to help. In this instance, four of these women had just wrapped up a fashion shoot with Ritts and he asked them to pose. One of them suggested he call the fifth supermodel, who happened to be in Los Angeles, to join them to make it a better photograph. Then they agreed to do it nude. That's what friends are for. Ritts returned the friendship in kind, creating a graceful composition of long limbs and exquisite features that probably took hours to work out. As Crawford says on the audiotape, everyone trusted him to make them look wonderful.
Ritts often shot commissioned work in color but reproduced it for his own limited-edition portfolio in black and white, which is what you see here. He owned the rights to all his photographs, which became the property of the Herb Ritts Foundation after his death. Its board, which includes his longtime friend Richard Gere, decided never to make posthumous prints, so all were supervised by the photographer himself.
The show does have a few of his famous magazine covers in color for Vogue and Vanity Fair, including the hilarious one he took of Crawford shaving K.D. Lang for its August 1993 cover. And there are examples of his video work on a monitor. As with his still photography, Ritts was mostly self-taught as a videographer. His first music video was for Madonna's Cherish and for it he utilized the beach and fabulous male models. Some of his stylized ads for clients such as Calvin Klein are also included, as is an ad featuring a luminous Isabella Rossellini wearing bright red lipstick.
"Herb Ritts: L.A. Style" was organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles using its own substantial collection of Ritts' work, which was a gift of the Herb Ritts Foundation, and images still part of the foundation. Curator Paul Martineau, associate curator in the museum's Department of Photography, said he began with 1,100 available prints that he eventually whittled down to about 150 for an exhibition at the Getty. Matthew McLendon, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Ringling, helped downsize it more for the Ringling galleries.
The exhibition makes a strong case for Ritts' work as an artist, even when he worked as a photographer for hire. But some of the photographs, especially those done for haute couture fashion house catalogs, are simply very fine fashion photography, nothing more.
And yet. One can't argue about the audacious genius of his photograph of a pair of couture pants shot from the back. The model is contorted in a pose that leaves her head invisible and arms near invisible. The bones of her spine protrude in high relief from her topless back. It would please fans of surrealism and fashion industry insiders alike. He seemed to occupy that wobbly wire above art and commerce with confidence and never lost his balance.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.