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Herb Ritts Interview : American Photographer

Madonna - American Photographer / August 1987

“I whined and whined until I got what I wanted,” Ritts recalls. “Stallone finally asked me if I wanted to be his manager. I was such a noodge.”

Out come more magazines, helter-skelter, from his collection. There’s Tina Turner surrounded be a herd of adoring Eton students in a fashion spread for Tatler. For Rolling Stone, Ritts shot Jack Nicholson, fully clothed, through a fee inches of rippling water. The picture is as bright and fractured as a Hockney Polaroid collage, yet Nicholson remains completely in character, sly grin and all. “He’s tremendous,” Ritts says of Nicholson. “You don’t need to jazz him up or tech him up — it’s all within him. He can just look at you and you’ve got a picture. It can be as simple as that.” A series of pictures of Debra Winger for Vanity Fair shows the actress comfortably pregnant, drenched in perfect natural light. She looks sensible, earthy, and elegant — as good as she’s ever looked.

“A lot of times, I have to pull it right out of the hat,” Ritts admits, pointing, to a Rolling Sione portrait of Don Johnson in which the actor stands thigh-high in the Atlantic Ocean wearing a white Gianni Verasce suit. “I hardly knew who he was,” Ritts recalls of the 1985 shoot. “I’d never seen Miami Vice and was given only a half-hour on the beach to figure out what this man was about. He seemed vulnerable to me, but also a little crazy and open to anything, like standing in the ocean in a suit.”

Now Johnson, along with Tina Turner and Basinger and a number of other star attractions, makes special requests for Ritts. “I know I’m pretty easy with everybody,” he concedes. “I’m not pretentious, I hope, or crazy…. I let the stars be the stars. I’m diplomatic, but I always finagle whaat I need for the sake of the image. I can be manipulative, for sure, but in a nice way.

“My style,” he says, pausing, “… I don’t like to be pegged. I like it clean and simple. I like the person to come out. Once I feel comfortable with the light and setting, the rest always comes from them.”

Yet while he downplays any attempts at personaizing, his pictures often say otherwise. In 1982 longtime friend Olivia Newton-John sought out Ritts when she needed new visuals for her Physical album; his sporty makeover of the prim singer helped popularize the aerobics-chic style of the early 1980s, More recently, Madonna shed her cheap-lingerie image in favor of glamour-queen posturings a la Marilyn Monroe and used Ritts’s strong flair for black and white to effect the change.

“Trustable” is the word the provocative songstress summons in explaining her preference for Ritts, as in, “Herb’s gone through five years of my life, he knows all about my moods. The more he knows me, the more he can get out of my pictures. He’s trustable.

“He’s also the exact opposite of his photographs,” Madonna continues. “He’s an understated, low-key guy. I can’t figure out how he makes the pictures he makes. A lot of photographers are unnerved and uptight, they’re so clearly wanting a particular picture. With Herb, I don’t feel I have to please him. He approaches our sessions with no preconceptions and allows things to just happen. Take it from me. I’m married to a guy [actor Sean Penn] who hates pictures, and he and I did a real good session with Herb.”

The reference is to a session for Interview shot in late 1985. In one photo, the newlywedded Madonna and Penn lie next to each other in the grass, propped up on their elbows, their sunny faces tilted up to the camera like the classic publicity stills of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney from the MGM days 40 years ago. It’s one of Ritts’s favorite photographs.

The picture, a luxuriant send-up of pop fantasy, also says a lot about Ritts’s true take on the stars he shoots, a take that lends itself to legends. Indeed, despite the number of magazines he services, the photographer insists he is not a member of the press, nor a subscriber to any particular brand of truth — “journalistic, abstract, or moral,” he ticks off the list.

“What I do is make images,” Ritts declares. “Sometimes they’re true to the subject, sometimes they’re larger than life. I never feel I’m taking sides — either with the magazine I’m working for or the person I’m photographing. I figure I’m being hired to get an interesting image, so I’m really only working against myself.”