'A psychologist, a playmate, a persuader'
January 2003

by Mary Panzer

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about Herb Ritts

Everyone wants to be loved for the right reasons.

Herb Ritts, the photographer who died at age 50 on Dec. 27, had an undeniable talent for finding your best side and putting it on film.

He also knew how to hide your unattractive parts, wherever they might show up. And as we all know, often our best qualities are also the ones that get us into the most trouble. But after Herb Ritts was finished, your beauty remained and the trouble was gone.

Growing up affluent and gay in Los Angeles, Ritts learned how to live with a secret. He came out to his family in the late '70s, when homosexuality was not a new idea, though it still remained a choice one could not easily admit to the outside world. But as his early portrait of Richard Gere shows, Ritts discovered a way to celebrate the male body without scaring anybody.

Ritts learned a lot from other photographers. From the 1930s, he stole the sleek, muscled males that Leni Riefenstahl famously photographed at the Berlin Olympics of 1936. And he took the still, perfect, sculpted figures from fashion photographers for Vogue, like Horst and George Platt Lynes. Lynes also photographed male nudes for the sexologist Dr. Kinsey but those images carry a distinctly dark, illicit tone. By contrast, Ritts brought a lively sense of pleasure to his project.

He copied the stark compositions of Richard Avedon, but where Avedon's work startled audiences in the 1970s, Ritts' photographs in the 1990s just look stylish. As a result, when he photographed gorgeous young models such as Marky Mark and Antonio Sabato Jr. in tight-fitting designer underwear, his flattering light made their lovely strong bodies look innocent and happy, not dangerous. The ads showed up in mainstream magazines and at bus stops, and no one blinked.

Ritts loved glamor wherever he found it, and he photographed every female celebrity of his time, from young Madonna and aging Meryl Streep, to pregnant Annette Benning, and Britney Spears. Madonna clearly aroused something special. Another star might have been grateful for his ability to make an icon out of her long, bare neck, turned up profile and shaggy blond curls. But the singer only seemed to take it as a challenge, and dared him to repeat the performance when she next emerged, with new hair and a different shape.

Where Ritts usually seems to collaborate with his subjects, in the case of the Madonna, one senses a fierce, intimate competition. In an unusually candid reflection on his career, Ritts once claimed that the fame of his pictures would last longer that the celebrity of many of his subjects. In the future, he observed, people would want to know Madonna because she had been photographed by Herb Ritts.

Ritts was too talented, and too ambitious, to limit his subject matter or his medium. He published seven books, including several devoted to celebrity portraiture, one on Africa, an another on gay couples. He produced many music videos, winning awards for his work with Chris Isaak, Janet Jackson and Madonna. One recent production, "Telling Stories," by Tracy Chapman, appears on her Web site. Chapman also includes an affectionate farewell to the photographer, who created her first album cover, and the joyous androgynous image that has become her trademark.

In the summer of 1998, when Vanity Fair sought an interview with Monica Lewinsky, she declined to meet with reporters, but agreed to be photographed -- by Herb Ritts. He photographed her on the beach, in gingham and denim, making an oblique and flattering reference to the young Marilyn Monroe. She was innocent and sexy all at once, a young beauty not quite aware of her power. It's no wonder Monica felt safe and happy before his camera. Ingrid Sischy, former editor of Interview, has called him "a diplomat, a psychologist, a playmate and a great persuader," and declared his pictures to be "the equivalent of miracles."

Someday, when your grandchildren stumble on an old copy of Vogue or Vanity Fair, when they laugh at the fashions of Versace or Karan, Herb Ritts will be there. The muscled young men, the sleek young women, the bodies that look so clean and pretty. What made them so exciting? What made Ritts such a star?

The obituaries quote his many celebrity friends, dealers and magazine editors who all agree on his charm, his sweetness and his talent, but no one mentions how well Herb Ritts met the special needs of his historical moment. His beautifully composed photographs, with their open pleasure in the male form, also coincided with the emergence of AIDS. When historians try to account for the exhilaration and power of the late 20th Century movement for Gay Rights, they will surely recognize Ritts as an important ambassador.

With his images floating in the mainstream, how much easier it was to accept such beauty as normal and natural. Under the guise of advertising and celebrity portraiture Ritts won public acceptance for private delight in men's bodies. Our silence regarding this contribution may actually be the most eloquent tribute -- what once seemed so difficult to see and talk about has become so ordinary that we don't mention it at all.

Copyright © 2003, Chicago Tribune


By Mary Panzer, Special to the Tribune.

From 1992-2000 Mary Panzer was Curator of Photographs at the National Portrait
Gallery (Smithsonian Institution), and she now lives in New York. Her essays
frequently appear in AmericanPhoto and the Chicago Tribune. She is at work on a
biography of Roy Stryker.

Reprinted with permission. The piece was originally published on January 3, 2003.

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