Today’s photographer I only know by name. A little note ‘ nudes’ is written next to it, so I must have encountered his name in a book or magazine and jotted down a little support for my memory. Fat load of good that did! So lets have a look at what this man actually did.
Herbert “Herb” Ritts was born on August 13th, 1952 in Los Angeles, California as the oldest of four children. Ritts began his career working in the family furniture business. His father, Herb Ritts Sr., was a businessman, while his mother, Shirley Ritts, was an interior designer. He moved to the East Coast to attend Bard College in New York, where he majored in economics and art history. Later, while living in Los Angeles, he became interested in photography when he and friend Richard Gere, then an aspiring actor decided to shoot some photographs in front of an old jacked up Buick. The picture gained Ritts some coverage and he began to be more serious about photography. He photographed Brooke Shields for the cover of the Oct. 12, 1981 edition of Elle and he photographed Olivia Newton-John for her Physical album in 1981. Five years later he would replicate that cover pose with Madonna for her 1986 release True Blue.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Ritts photographed notables such as, Christopher Reeve, Michael Jordan, Dalai Lama, Mihail Gorbachev, Francesco Clemente, George Clooney, Cher, Mel Gibson, Elizabeth Taylor, Brad Pitt, Ronald Reagan, Julia Roberts, Steven Hawking, Nicole Kidman, Edward Norton, Tom Cruise, Madonna, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dizzy Gillespie, Elton John, Annette Benning, Antonio Banderas, Richard Gere, Jack Nicholson, Cindy Crawford, and many others.
He took many fashion and nude photos of supermodel Cindy Crawford and eventually set her up with his good friend, actor Richard Gere, at a BBQ held at his mother Shirley’s house. The couple married four years later in 1991, but divorced in 1995.
He also worked for Interview, Esquire, Mademoiselle, Glamour, GQ, Newsweek, Harper’s Bazaar, Rolling Stone, Time, Vogue, Allure, Vanity Fair, Details, and Elle. He published many books on photography for leading fashion designers including, Giorgio Armani, Revlon, Ralph Lauren, Chanel, Gianni Versace, Calvin Klein, Elizabeth Arden, Donna Karan, Cartier, Guess, Maybelline, TAG Heuer, Lacoste, Gianfranco Ferrè, Levi’s, Victoria’s Secret, Gap, Acura, CoverGirl, Lancôme, and Valentino. He photographed Prince for his “The Hits/The B-Sides” greatest-hits package released in 1993.
He was a gifted music video director as well: the first video he directed was Madonna in “Cherish” in 1989. In 1991, he won two MTV Video Awards for his work on music videos by Janet Jackson and Chris Isaak. Ritts also directed the music video for Michael Jackson’s “In the Closet”, which featured supermodel Naomi Campbell. He worked on other projects next to that, including directing and acting, on Mariah Carey’s video collection #1’s (1999), Jennifer Lopez’s sepia video “Ain’t It Funny”, Janet Jackson’s Design of a Decade 1986/1996 (1996), Intimate Portrait: Cindy Crawford (1998), Murder in the First (1995), and Britney Spears’ “Don’t Let Me Be The Last To Know (2001).
On December 26, 2002, Ritts died of complications from pneumonia at the age of 50. According to Ritts’ publicist, “Herb was HIV-positive, but this particular pneumonia was not PCP [pneumocystis pneumonia, a common opportunistic infection of AIDS. But at the end of the day, his immune system was compromised.” – December 26, 2002)
In his life and work, Herb Ritts was drawn to clean lines and strong forms. This graphic simplicity allowed his images to be read and felt instantaneously and often challenged conventional notions of gender or race. Social history and fantasy were both captured and created by his memorable photographs of noted individuals in film, fashion, music, politics and society.
Herb Ritts’ favoured choice of photographic equipment was a medium format camera (a Mamiya RZ) producing a 6 x 7 centimeter (2 1/4″ x 2 3/4″) negative. Working with three cameras that were set up identically it allowed him to keep a spontaneity in his sessions giving both himself and subject the creative freedom “To capture the moment.” In most images it seems he would have used just one direct source of light (sunlight) to produce the harsh shadows which he became so known for.
About becoming a photographer he said: Well, I liked it – that was the main thing. I liked it, but I didn’t think of it in terms of a career. I didn’t really know; I didn’t really think about it. One thing just led to another until finally I quit my job as a salesman and found myself working as a photographer.
My favourite images: