The fashion world claims Herb Ritts as one of its superstars, but he is not truly a fashion photographer. He’s a portrait photographer who shot beautiful people and made them look even more beautiful than they were to begin with. Mostly they look more beautiful when they’re not wearing many clothes.
While Ritts did shoot at least 50 ad campaigns (from Chanel to Haagen-Dazs) and for magazines from Allure to Rolling Stone, it’s his vision of the human form as a thing of godlike beauty, and the sheer sexiness of his models, that stands the test of time.
This exhibition at Maison européenne de la photographie is full of the classics: there’s “Fred With Tires” (originally commissioned by Franca Sozzani in 1984 for Per Lui – Ritts and stylist Michael Roberts abandoned the clothes they’d been sent to shoot, and “Franca nearly had a heart attack”): there’s Naomi pared down to thigh-high boots and a turban (shot for but rejected by American Vogue), there are the supers, nude, curled up together in a corner of Herb’s studio gazing at the camera with a mixture of apprehension and invitation.
Being a California boy, Ritts was at home in the desert, where some of his most iconic images were photographed. “Versace Dress, El Mirage,” shot for Versace’s1990 catalogue, doesn’t tell us anything about the dress, or the model (Christy Turlington): it’s purely about shape, contrast and light.
Shape, contrast and light were Ritts’ lifelong obsessions. He never used colour, and texture was of interest mostly when it could contribute to the shapes in an image – grains of sand on a nude torso, for instance. His influences were Greek statuary, the photography of Horst and George Hurrell’s Hollywood portraits from the 1930s and 40s – and that baking desert light. Though he usually shot outdoors, the landscape itself tended to be bleached out: a beach, a wall, or a dry lakebed providing a pale canvas in front of which his figures writhe and glow.
It’s interesting to contrast Ritts with Peter Lindbergh, who was, in a way, the other photographer responsible for the “creation” of the Supermodels. Ritt’s portrait of Stephanie, Cindy, Christy, Tatjana, and Naomi was shot for Rolling Stone in 1989, while Lindbergh was shooting Linda, Cindy, Christy, Tatjana and Naomi for the January 1990 cover of British Vogue. Lindbergh’s picture (below, right) is very innocent, almost naive, in comparison to Ritt’s (well, it was England, and British Vogue).
But over time, Lindbergh’s work has become more textured and nuanced – more weathered. Looking at the prints in his exhibition in Paris last year it was striking how he does not retouch, and how much more “real” this makes his women. Lindbergh says he stopped retouching because, “This should be the responsibility of photographers today to free women, and finally everyone, from the terror of youth and perfection.”
Herb Ritts died in 2002, aged just 50, so who can tell whether he would eventually have embraced the ageing process and allowed his beautiful subjects to show a little flab, a few wrinkles. This collection preserves the lusciousness of the 20-something Nicole Kidman and Richard Gere, the playfulness of Madonna and Philip Seymour Hoffman when they were young and just starting out and had their whole lives ahead of them.
“En Pleine Lumière” translates rather clunkily as “In Full Light.” Maybe a better way to put it would be “The Future’s Bright.” Herb Ritts certainly made it look that way.
Herb Ritts: En Pleine Lumière, Maison européene de la photographie, Paris, until October 30, 2016
© Fiona Hayes 2016
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