Master of Iconography, Herb Ritts: L.A. Style

Friday, August 24, 2012

"Herb Ritts: L.A. Style" book cover 

In this modern age of image, how you look and present yourself has become the crux of importance. This focus on image became crafted throughout our post modern age via television, music, film, and advertising. This lens became the way we "see" ourselves. Yet in the world of contemporary art, it is the photographer who hones and perfects this craft and brings it in its presentation to us, the viewer (or subject sometimes) with an interesting outcome. No other modern photographer has done it in such a way as Herb Ritts, who use of natural light, simple composition, and emotional resonance has captivated us and brought to the most iconic and prolific images of celebrity, fashion, commerce, music, and art. At the apex of sensuality, nature, individuality, shadow, celebrity, and style stood Ritts, who became its master and brought a truly unique and starkly simple view of the end of the 20th century.

I became a huge Herb Ritts fan in the mid 80s when I became familiar with his work through the images he produced for celebrities like Richard Gere and Madonna, in ad campaigns for Revlon and Calvin Klein, and the countless fashion magazine pictorials found in the pages of "Vanity Fair", "Interview", "Vogue", and "Harpers Bazaar" Magazines. His use of the uber-models of the day (Cindy, Christy, Naomi, Stephanie, Helena, Tony, Djimon, et al) not only made them recognizable but made them into stars in their own right and catapulated anything they were involved in into fashion spectaculars. Yet Ritts utilized them in traditional ways befitting a model: as a chameleon of pose, light, and shape sculpted in the forms through the hands/lens of the artist. The same thing can be said when he created memorable portraits for celebrities: using their personality and individuality to elevate the portrait to a personal moment fluid with freedom and expression of his subject. And these models and stars regularly worked with Ritts and enjoyed the artistically natural and collaborative process he imbued on his projects and it shows throughout his body of work.

On view at the Getty Center is the fantastic photographic retrospective "Herb Ritts: L.A. Style". It is a broad mix of well-known and lesser seen works by Ritts, who in the late 70s began his ouevre and left us too soon. It is an interesting show: sectioned off in group areas such as "Nudes" (his most striking work), "Celebrity Portraits" (where his signature evolves and shines and elevates the genre of celebrity itself), "Music Videos and Commercials" (his work in movement form and where he changed the entire scope of music videos for the best), and "Fashion" (at the ultimate top of the fashion chain, Ritts creates indelibly wonderful imagery and editorial work). One of my favorite items is the Britney Spears Vogue Magazine cover (Novemeber 2001) and its original two composite shots with art direction touch up notes on the Britney photo itself alongside the finished magazine cover because, as great as Ritts' portrait is by itself, we get to glimpse what it takes to show "perfection" (those edit notes made me chuckle a bit) so that an image becomes branded as "Vogue". I also enjoyed re-viewing the award winning music video he shot for Janet Jackson's "Love will Never Do (Without You)", shown in its entirety as his signature video work (although Madonna's "Cherish" was his premiere foray into the genre); it still is a great 5 minutes of artistic magic to this day. I did wish the Getty included the Ritts directed video for Michael Jackson's "In The Closet" featuring model Naomi Campbell but it was absent perhaps because of its similarities to Janet's video or some situation having to do with Michael's estate, perhaps (in its place there is the Rolling Stones Magazine cover of MJ, a still from that video shoot)...? I'm sure there are some hidden gems that the Herb Ritts Foundation has tucked away somewhere and perhaps in future retrospectives we may get the chance to see them but the Getty has put together a good show and it is definitely one to go and experience for yourself and enjoy the scope and breadth of this wonderful artist's contribution to the world.

The Getty Center presents the retrospective until September 2, 2012 before it moves next to the Cincinnati Art Museum.
Don't miss it!

(photo via Getty and the companion book can be purchased by clicking on the highlighted link)


The Herb Ritts Foundation 

The Getty Center--"Herb Ritts: L.A. Style" 


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