Photographer and his Images: how Herb Ritts’ art of celebrity photography and celebrity reflect modern times
Every now and then, a photographer comes along who defines not only the current ethos of modern photography, but also the attitude of an entire generation on film. The contemporary photographer of celebrities Herb Ritts unquestionably took the medium of celebrity or what is often called promotional or vanity photography (indeed, this photographer has often worked for Vanity Fair) and rendered it into an art form. No longer were magazine depictions of actresses and singers merely promotional material. Under Ritts’ lens they functioned both as an ironic commentary on celebrity and also as a celebration of the artist’s work. Amazingly, Ritts could both take a picture for Calvin Klein to promote the manufacturer’s product, and yet also make the photograph seem beautiful in and of itself, as a celebration of the human form. From what was supposed to be ephemeral, like a piece of advertising or a headshot of a film star, Ritts created an image that had a timeless quality to it, because his belief in the beauty of the human form that came through in all of his work.
Her Ritts died in 2002. Upon his death was memorialized mostly for his fashion spreads, album covers, advertisements and music videos. (BBC, 2002) A photographer of celebrity, he became a celebrity himself by association and also by revealing a kind of ‘intimate’ view of famous people that gave readers and gazers a sense that they were being privileged with a glimpse into the soul of very private people with very public lives. Ritts’ most often cited ‘great work’ was that of ‘Mickey Mouse Madonna,’ where the the Disney ears for the photographer, both spoofing her image in the buff and also admitting her status as well as an icon on par with the world’s most famous mouse.
Another popular work was that of Ritts’ photograph of Jack Nicholson in costume as the joker for the “Batman films.” Nicholson was in costume, but the photograph seemed very intimate because it focused on Nicholson’s eyes, giving the viewer a sense of the man ‘behind the mask’ and makeup. The 2002 BBC obituary of Ritts also showed more sensitive works, such as the Vanity Fair cover Ritts photographed, where Warren Beatty, the notorious Hollywood womanizer cradling the pregnant belly of his new wife Annette Benning. The fact that Ritts’ conceived of such a powerful image and coaxed the couple into doing such a shot is a testimony to his diplomacy as a photographer and also his sense of what different celebrities images were in the public eye, and how to subvert and celebrate these images at the same time. In the picture, Beatty is a new, gentle father as well as the Lothario of Hollywood’s past, a man who used to have a different actress on his arm every month.
But despite his skillful use of promotional celebrity photography and advertising, Herb Ritts did not only engage in celebrity photography. He also took notable picture of unknown people, usually powerful male nudes. However, significantly Ritts always named these individuals, underscoring the importance of ‘naming’ in his work, even of those who were not famous. In other words, revealing the character by celebrating the human form in a highly stylized and beautiful fashion was critical to Ritts’ art. Even his ordinary subjects look like models. In “Vladimir: Hollywood 1980” a man smoking a cigarette with a stocking cap on his head looks almost sensual in his delight at this act, as if he is advertising the brand as well as simply enjoying a smoke.
Ritts’ studies of African natives, far away from exposure to the Western media, are lit in ways that recall his Calvin Klein ads and other commercial representations from America like “Dijimon with Octopus.” This work shows an African native with braided, octopus-like hair. (Images available from the website text and image catalogue “Herb Ritts on Show,” 2000) Ritts suggests that even celebrities have a personal and human side, and even ordinary Americans and Africans have the power to speak to the camera as an iconic image — in other words, anyone can indeed be famous for fifteen minutes, if photographed by someone like Ritts.
Thus, the similarity between these images of African natives and ordinary Los Angeles residents with more famous Ritts images such as his pictures of Madonna highlights not only his love of celebrity and how the idealized, optimistic view of human beauty permeates even his non-Western images. Perhaps it is only fitting that Ritts came to photography accidentally, as he began working in his family’s furniture business in Los Angeles, and in photography for fun. In the 1970’s he took pictures of friends, and gradually words of his talent grew.
Thus Kasia Dybowska has taken issue with some of the common views of Ritts as merely a celebrity photographer, or even one merely fascinated with model like beauty. Dybowska points out that the one conjoining commonality between all of the artist’s works, whether magazine covers, rock videos, or even his shots of Africa, is the human form in the nude, depicted in strength and beauty. When exposed, the human form takes on a linearity and power much like an icon, even if the actual individual is not an icon. She calls him an image-maker, rather than a photographer, as Ritts used images to comment upon character and life, rather than to merely render reality onto the page. The image of the more truthful words about the artist than the celebrity’s conventional, best face. Ritts was able to create something ‘new’ from Madonna that said something about himself, the culture, and the famous woman’s soul, rather than to merely take her image and ‘send it up’ like Warhol’s depiction of a tomato soup can, for example, does with the commercial, advertised image.
BBC News. (27 Dec 2002) “Photographer Herb Ritts dies.” Images and accompanying text available at 25 Jan 2005 at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/showbiz/2608665.stm
Dybowska, Kasia. (2002) “Herb Ritts Photography.” Trincoll Journal: Current Events. Images and accompanying text available at 25 Jan 2005 at http://www.trincoll.edu/zines/tj/tj11.14.96/articles/cover.html
Herb Ritts on Show.” (15 Feb 2001) Images and accompanying text available at 25 Jan 2005 at http://www.designboom.com/portrait/hr.html