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Herb Ritts Interview : American Photographer

Madonna - American Photographer / August 1987

The Idol Maker

In Hollywood, where all is image and the image is all, celebrity photographer Herb Rits is one stars call first. He gets them while they’re hot.

“He doesn’t want to shoot just anybody,” Marysa Maslansky says, summing up the crux of the issue for celebrity-fashion photographer Herb Ritts. She’s trying to explain why it’s difficult for her, his agent, when she gets calls from some skateboard magazine editor who, she says, seems to he calling from a phone booth.

Maslansky is founder and director of Visages Photographic Agency, where the new Hollywood comes to get its picture taken. Her domain is a small warren of offices in an old building on the Sunset Strip, across the street from the dusky Chateau Marmont Hotel. Through the window of her simple corner office, through the L.A. haze, you can see the tasteful brick apartment pile that Robert De Niro occasionally calls home.

The office phones ring constantly — calls from publicists, magazine editors, record people, studio marketing types. A dog sleeps under the light table. On the walls, framed photographs of pop idols stand out like the dreamy billboards on the Strip: Don Johnson squints intently under the Rolling Stone logo (Herb Ruts, photographer). A platinum-wigged Joan Collins flaunts her dazzling baubles on the cover of Vanity Fair (Ritts). Sylvester Stallone, the picture of chiseled perfection, is Vanity Fair’s Mr. California 1985 and Interview’s Mr. Hollywood 1986 (Ritts again). Then, of course, there’s Madonna, head thrown back, eyes closed, mood very indigo, on the cover of her triumphant third album, True Blue (true Ritts).

Ritts isn’t the only credit line displayed — Maslansky’s roster takes in some of the busiest editorial and fashion shooters working today, including Mary Ellen Mark, Brigitte Lacombe, Carlos Reynosa, and Paul Jasmin. At one time she handled the king of Hollywood’s glamour photographers, George Hurrell, as well as Matthew Rolston. But her undisputed star of the moment is Ritts.

“Everybody wants Erb … Jackie Bisset is dying for Erb,” she oozes, her French accent dropping the H on his first name so that he sounds like something grown in a garden. “Erb makes everybody look so wonderful. I get four or five requests a day, and this fellow in the phone booth….”

Though no one has yet expired for want of a session with her photographer, Maslansky’s hyperbole isn’t so far off the mark. At 34, with only seven years of camerawork behind him, Ritts has emerged as Hollywood’s most sought-after portraitist, the iconographer of pop. Mel Gibson, Tina Turner, Jack Nicholson, Debra Winger, Kim Basinger, Richard Gere, Tom Cruise — Ritts’s list of star subjects is rivaled only by the number of magazines, film ads, book and album jackets, and even billboards on which his work has come to be showcased with regularity.

Remarkably, Ritts has risen to prominence independently; no single outlet helped launch his career. Unlike, say, Annie Leibovitz or Richard Avedon or Bruce Weber, each of whom had benefit of a major magazine in cultivating his or her imagery to distinction, Ritts arrived in the front ranks having shot for many publications but none in particular. Yet it may be that very lack of a clearly defined position that makes Ritts the perfect image-maker for the stylishly weightless decade the 1980s has become.

What Ritts delivers in his clean, bold, and consistently elegant photographs is simply the beauty of fame. Rather than interpreting celebrities with any overt editorial or aesthetic point of view, Ritts streamlines and celebrates the very elements of their popularity. No questions asked, no scrutiny suggested. Stars like Ritts because he makes them look so good, often to the point of ravishing. Editors like him because his portraits seem so definitive, to the point of myth-making. They’ll sizzle if the subject is sexy, swoon if the subject is self-involved. Like polished mirrors, Ritts’s pictures reflect celebrities in the brilliant isolation of their own celebrity — and that kind of flattery even Robin Leach can’t get you.

“You see ’em come and go, and you photograph some of them.” Ritts is chatting idly as he pulls magazines from an impressively organized collection stacked in the library of his big fortress-like house in the Hollywood hills, where he lives alone. A reticent interviewee, allergic to the hype implicit in his work, Ritts is noticeably more at ease discussing the art of image-making than Image-making.

“The repro was lousy on this,” he says, opening the November 1985 issue of Vanity Fair to his memorable black-and-white photos of Sylvester Stallone and the actor’s then fiancée (and now his wife), Brigitte Nielsen. Across eight pages, Ritts’s photographs of the couple read like a lurid Greek myth drawn in half-tones. But the myth isn’t about the vainglorious actor and his woman; it’s about celebrity itself.

It’s an outrageous take, one of the most resonant celebrity picture essays ever published, but Ritts wants to talk about the printing quality and the nightmare of pulling the session off. The hour-long shoot was scheduled to take place in a Manhattan gym — until the photographer found a beach-club location on Long Island and determined that he’d need a full day to get the images he envisioned.