Putting on the Ritts at the Getty
By Melissa Magsaysay
LEFT: Cindy Crawford, Ferre 3, Malibu, 1993. RIGHT: Versace, Veiled Dress, El Mirage, 1990.
The era of the svelte supermodel, celebrity portraits-meet-fine art, and a celebration of Los Angeles's golden light and unique landscape are at the center of Herb Ritts: L.A. Style, a retrospective of photographer Herb Ritts's work, on display at The J. Paul Getty Museum through August 26.
Ritts, an LA native and largely self-taught shooter who died of AIDS-related complications in 2002, has been championed for exporting a fresh perspective on LA glamour around the world through his stripped-down celebrity photographs and use of Southern California's natural terrain. He straddled the world of art and commerce, often blurring the lines between his personal projects and high-profile advertising work, further establishing his distinct style within Hollywood and the fashion and music industries.
"His work really shows how the artist could switch gears between artistic production and commercial work, as well as between different genres," says the exhibit's curator, Paul Martineau. "There's a complexity in there that's hard to achieve while still keeping it simple and fresh."
Ritts managed to seamlessly incorporate the surrealist influences of Salvador Dali with the fluidity and femininity of Sandro Botticelli's paintings and the drama of Old Hollywood glamour into his work. At the same time, he maintained the ease and simplicity that came with the late-afternoon sun and his favorite locations, including Malibu, Hollywood, and the El Mirage dry lake bed in the Mojave Desert. A 1987 portrait of Olympic swimmer Greg Louganis (Greg Louganis, Hollywood, 1987) reclining, every muscle in his upper body detailed by the use of light and shadow, illustrates Ritts's affinity for the human form and ability to capture professional athletes in the way George Hurrell shot the starlets of Hollywood's Golden Age. "There is a sensual but not overtly sexual quality to his work," says Martineau. "He had a great respect for those who achieved amazing bodies through their work, rather than just the gym."
When it came to choosing which of Ritts's volumes of celebrity photographs would comprise the exhibit, Martineau focused on the strength of each image, rather than the star power associated with the sitter.
The celebrity work shown is indicative of Ritts's ability to take a well-known star out of the studio and into a natural setting. His 1977 photograph of Richard Gere posed at a gas station (Richard Gere, San Bernadino, 1977) is reflective of this, as are his music videos for Janet Jackson's song "Love Will Never Do (Without You)" and Madonna's "Cherish," which play at The Getty on a loop along with Ritts's commercial work for brands such as Levi's and Calvin Klein.
Madonna became one of Ritts's longtime subjects and collaborators after meeting in the mid-'80s on the set of Desperately Seeking Susan. In the exhibit, an iconic image of the singer shows her shot from the side, hair short and platinum, neck stretched long, a black leather motorcycle jacket draped around her bare shoulders, channeling both Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. "If Madonna weren't Madonna, that would still be a great picture," says Martineau. The singer continued to request Ritts for photo shoots, and eventually music videos, time and time again.
Ritts developed a deep trust with each of his subjects and maintained a casual demeanor among celebrities. His LA upbringing, spent around stars such as Steve McQueen—to whom he lived next door as a teenager—most likely desensitized the photographer to the idea of celebrity. Being able to see beyond their public image allowed him to create unexpected and refreshingly unique portraits. The result was big stars stripped of their 1980s artifice, accentuating their inherent elegance and beauty.
In the 2010 book Herb Ritts: The Golden Hour: A Photographer's Life and His World, Cindy Crawford said of the master, "The way Herb photographed you was the way you wanted to be seen by the world." Herb Ritts: L.A. Style is on display at The Getty center through August 26. 1200 Getty Center Dr., LA, 310-440-7300
photographs courtesy of the j.paul getty museum, los angeles, gift of herb ritts foundation (crawford, versace); ryan miller/capture imaging (martineau)