I am not a big fan of nude photography. Not because I’m too conservative or find it exploitative, but because most of the nude photographs I’ve seen are not art. Often, they are taken by some photographer claiming to be creating “fine art” when really it’s little more an excuse to get close to naked women. There is nothing beautiful, elegant or “glamorous” about that. I actually find it offensive. I’ve often thought about what makes a fine art nude photograph and how you qualify it. The examples of it are few and far between and the only answer I can come up with, for me, is that I would know it if I saw it. I took one look at Herb Ritts’ work and knew this was it, my benchmark for what a fine art nude should look like.
I had never heard the name Herb Ritts until Jeffery suggested him for a Photographer Spotlight. When I did a Google image search my jaw hit the floor. How could I not have known who he was or be familiar with his work? The more I saw, the more I wanted to keep looking. His images are like finely honed sculptures, every angle and curve is precisely where he wanted it to be. Although he was primarily known as a fashion photographer, his eye was drawn to the human form. The clothes and the setting surrounding the subject were almost peripheral. He was able to take the human form and create something new. Through his lens, it became something more than a naked body, but rather a shape, a curve, a shadow. It became art.
Many of his images are meant to be shocking, even drawing comparisons to Robert Mapplethorpe. They are not “in your face”, however, nor are they graphic or offensive. They are more about wanting you to see the beauty in the human form. His nudes are more sensual than sexual, meant to allure not titillate. His photos seem to be effortless; there is nothing about them that looks as if he was trying too hard. It is obvious that he sees the human body as beautiful and sexy, but he doesn’t seek to exploit it. He doesn’t throw it at you like so many other photographers do.
Ritts had an amazing story of how he got his start. He was just dabbling in photography, still working for his parents as a salesman in their furniture store, when his friend, Penny, was supposed to come over to his house with a friend of hers who wanted to get some head shots done. Penny never showed, but the friend did. The friend happened to be Richard Gere. Gere was just getting started as an actor, having just completed his first movie, Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Gere and Ritts became fast friends. A week or so later they were driving around when they got a flat tire. They ended up in a desert gas station and while they were waiting for the tire to get fixed, Ritts asked Gere if he could shoot some photos. He later sent the negatives to Gere and didn’t give them a second thought. Ritts said, “Three months later the pictures appeared in American Vogue, Esquire, and Mademoiselle. Big spreads. One day soon thereafter, Mademoiselle tracked me down and asked me to do Brooke Shields, and I said sure. I didn’t say I wasn’t a photographer.”
Within a few years he was regularly getting offers for covers from Vanity Fair, Vogue, GQ, and Harper’s Bazaar and was doing ads for Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, and Revlon. Even with his quick rise to fame, Ritts never shied away from controversy. He always tried to get the photographs he wanted, not necessarily what the client dictated. His images often challenged standard notions of race and sexuality, whether through his Calvin Klein ads with Mark Wahlberg and Kate Moss or his pin-up of Naomi Campbell or the images of Cindy Crawford shaving KD Lang. The people he photographed trusted him; they knew he was going to make them look good. Cindy Crawford once said, “…the way Herb photographed you is the way that you wished you looked when you got up in the morning.” Elizabeth Taylor called him one of the most brilliant photographers she’d ever worked with.
Ritts’ portraits were different from his fine art or commercial work. He wasn’t trying for beauty, but rather showing the personality of the person. No matter how many beautiful people he worked with, he found the most interesting ones were the ones who had character, the ones who had persevered and lived an interesting life. He was looking for something different. He said, “It’s what’s inside that you project outwardly.” In his photographs of people like Michelle Pfeiffer, Jack Nicholson and Philip Seymour Hoffman you can see his sense of humor, that he wasn’t always a “serious artist”.
Ritts’ work extended beyond photography. In 1989 Madonna kept was urging him to move into videos. She finally talked him into doing her music video, “Cherish”. This started a whole new journey for him. He realized he could not only make magic with the still image, but moving images as well. He said it was invigorating and that working with a mixture of visual mediums “hones your eye even more so”. His work won him two MTV Video Awards for videos he did with Janet Jackson and Chris Isaak. Just because he had found a new media to work with did not signal the end of his photography career, however. He continued shooting right up until the end of his life. Diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in 1989, Ritts caught pneumonia and died in 2002 at the young age of 50. Although this was not the pneumonia associated with AIDS, his weakened immune system meant he could not shake it off. It makes me wonder what the world missed out on and how many more wonderful photographs he would have made.
BOOKS: Herb Ritts