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Herb Ritts Interview : American Photographer

Madonna - American Photographer / August 1987

Herb Ritts grew up rich and Jewish, the oldest of three children, in Brentwood, an executive enclave between Beverly Hills and the beach. Steve McQueen was just a neighbor who lived next door. The family fortune was made running a home furnishings business specializing in nationally distributed Lucite furniture designs; RittsCo.’s grand showroom still commands a prime corner in West Hollywood, about a mile down Santa Monica Boulevard from Ritts’s studio.

As a high-school student, Ritts got straight A’s, was voted Most Likely to Succeed, became an Eagle Scout, and was, as he puts it, “a little twerp.” At Bard College (class of ’74) he studied economics and dabbled in art history and art, though as a draftsman he never got beyond stick figures. After college, he waited on tables in New York, toyed with the idea of going into the music business, and spent several years working as a salesman for RittsCo.

Living upscale in L.A. in the mid-1970s, Ritts shed his twerp-dom and mingled with an assortment of young artisans-on-the-make: actors, models, movie people. He claims to have first picked up a camera in 1979 at age 26. It was a little Miranda with a fixed 105mm portrait lens with which he was to chronicle an outing to the Caribbean with William F. Buckley’s son. Fast-lane friends were his first subjects — among them, the girlfriend of a young actor named Richard Gere. She didn’t show up for an informal session, so Ritts asked Gere, who had been hanging around, to sit in as the light began to fade.

Late in 1979, with three films starring Gere releasing at roughly the same time, the actor’s Hollywood publicist needed pictures to distribute to the press, and Ritts had them. The moody, blatantly sexy photos from that session, and another shot taken alongside a highway gas station, were picked up by several magazines, including Mademoiselle, Vogue, and Esquire. Gere became an overnight Star, Ritts became an overnight Photographer, and the two became fast friends.

Another friend got Ritts access to the set of a Faye Dunaway/Jon Voight movie, The Champ. All he needed was a reason to be there, so Ritts called Newsweek, spoke to an intern, and had the assignment. Friends in the modeling business got him work in European fashion magazines. A picture editor at the briefly revived Look magazine called. Mademoiselle called back asking for a session with Brooke Shields.

Suddenly, before his feet were even wet, Ritts had launched two photo careers, fashion and celebrity. His image was that of a young Cecil Beaton to his glamorous friends, and he relished the inadvertent style of his rise. His little Miranda did its own meter readings. He didn’t know about using a blimp (a camera enclosure that soundproofs shutter noise) on the movie set. He didn’t know about test strips at the lab. “They were using me without seeing anything,” Ritts says incredulously.

That same year, a successful male model, Matt Collins, introduced Ritts to photographer Bruce Weber, who at the time was revolutionizing the look of male fashion in the pages of Gentlemen’s Quarterly. The two became friends. Weber helped Ritts with contacts at fashion magazines, including GQ, for which Ritts began doing celebrity portraits.

As his fashion portfolio developed, Ritts became the chief disciple of Weber and his idealized renderings of the brawny, all-American young man. Ritts shared the fantasy, placing his athletic, Waspy models in languorous settings that mimicked beach culture, or old-money culture, or sports culture, or bohemian culture. And, like his mentor, Ritts virtually ignored the clothes.

While never equaling the sensational impact of Weber’s work for GQ, Ritts was able to export the style to the European magazines, which, for once, had fallen behind U.S. publications as fashion innovators. In the process, some observers began accusing Ritts of more than just a casual reinterpretation of Weber’s work. As one garment trade in-sider recalls, “Well, Bruce would do something great and new, and you’d turn around and there Herb was, right behind him, with the same kind of pictures in Italian Bazaar or somewhere.”

“Yes, there was an influence,” Ritts says when pressed about Weber’s precedence. “I was always attracted to Bruce’s images and the mood they evoked.”

Today, with his own work increasingly seen out front, Ritts has been able to distance himself from his rap as a Weber rip-off. The two photographers even met head-on late last year with simultaneous cover pieces on Madonna — the Weber version in Life.

Ritts’s take in Vanity Fair The contrasts were apparent even considering the differences in the two magazines. Whereas Weber portrayed a high-spirited girl venting her more theatrical and seductive side. Ritts, the send-up artist, revved up the image considerably in a series of exaggerated, shadowy poses — Madonna the night-stalking panther, Madonna the tortured chanteuse, Madonna the siren, extending her fingers against a rainy windowpane. That there may be touches of other photographers’ work here — including Weber and Helmut Newton — doesn’t detract from Ritts’s distinct ability to overstate and get away with it.

Curiously, just as he may have hit his stride as a commercial shooter, Ritts admits he’s bored with much of the work. “I can’t stand straight fashion anymore,” he says. “It’s becoming so bland, and the magazines are so beholden to their advertisers.” He still enjoys the freedom of editorial jobs, especially for the more tolerant European magazines, but increasingly has grown more selective about assignments. After all, with steady clients like Reebok, Perry Ellis, The Gap, and Hollywood studios offering day rates as high as $10,000, “I’m at a point where I don’t have to do anything,” he points out. And so it is that he sets aside more and more time to pursue his own unassigned camera-work. “It’s still formulating,” he says cautiously. “I feel like I’m just starting.”

At the G. Ray Hawkins Gallery in Los Angeles, Ritts sells his growing body of personal work alongside glamour-fashion colleagues Helmut Newton, Greg Gorman, and Matthew Rolston. There are about 30 black-and-white pictures in his current portfolio, printed 16 x 20 in editions of 25. About that many of his pictures have been sold through the gallery at $600 each — a healthy sum for a young photographer not especially well known among collectors or in the art world.

Ritts’s personal portfolio is even more grandly adoring of its subjects than his fashion or editorial work, giving the impression that behind his highly charged image-making is a tumultuous private world. Sculptural male nudes predominate—shivering, wrestling, posing theatrically against granite walls. The few celebrities present are treated with no less a mixture of reverence and aggression. In one closeup, a shirtless Mel Gibson, looking like a coalminer just out in the sun after a 12-hour shift, leans into the camera squinting, his eyes bright as diamonds. Whatever the nature of his own demons and muses, Ritts won’t say. He is guarded about his personal life, fending off even questions about how he plans to furnish his enormous spare house in the Hollywood hills. What does come through is his double-edged attraction to the higher and lower elements of things — particularly people, and particularly people whose highs and lows go beyond the contrasts between pop culture and art.

Such is the tension he seems willing to reveal by inviting a stranger to his studio on Santa Monica Boulevard during one of his personal portrait sittings. The session is with three young punkish tattoo artists whom Ritts found through an offbeat modeling agency. As equipment is readied, the assembled trio munches on food left over from a shoot with young superstar Tom Cruise a few days earlier.

One of the models, an indifferent sort named Ron, has pierced the outside edge of his right ear in a dozen places, as well as his nose, both nipples, and the fold of skin just above his navel. Thus in addition to being tan and tattooed, his body shines with gold jewelry; it is he who draws most of the attention of Ritts’s camera.

Posing him against a white wall next to the windows, Ritts then has the boy pull his pants very low on his hips until they’re about to fall off. Up comes the left arm, completely covered in an African tattoo, to be pressed close against his chest. Ritts then asks the boy to turn his head to profile and close his eyes, gold filigree hanging on the edge of his ear. It is then that one sees the transformation. Suddenly, facing into the sunlight, the defiant, almost bored, tattooed young man is an utterly new image, his profile that of a proud Renaissance prince. For a moment Ritts and his assistants stop to admire the creation, and the bright room in L.A. is still, except for the staccato rhythms of the photographer’s motor drive.

© American Photographer