How Herb Ritts Created the Idols We Deserved

Since Herb Ritts' death in 2002, the art of Hollywood portraiture has been diminished -- not because the pictures have gotten smaller, but because our stars have.
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Toward the end of Herb Ritts: The Golden Hour, an oral history that traces the life and career of the late photographer, we are treated to a piece of wisdom from another famous image-maker who died in the past decade, Helmut Newton. He is quoted on the subject of creativity and the particular ideas that photographers are drawn to.

"We all only take one picture, ever, in our lives," he said. "We keep redoing that same picture over and over again."

It's a provocative idea, but of course Newton was a master provocateur. He was also among the most perceptive of those modern photographers who have learned how to combine the imperatives of art and with the demands of commerce.

Ritts, whose portraits of movie stars and other assorted celebrities helped usher in a new wave of Hollywood glamour in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, did indeed have one picture that he made and remade over and over, and the new book spends a good deal of time describing it.

It is time well spent, because that picture tells us a lot about how an acute artist like Ritts manages to give us the idols we deserve. Since his death in 2002 of complications of AIDS, the art of Hollywood portraiture has been diminished -- not because the pictures have gotten smaller, but because our stars have.

Charles Churchwood, the author of the new book, is the former design director of Vogue and Vanity Fair magazines, two of Ritts's most important showcases, and he has pieced together a portrait of the portraitist from stories told by nearly 100 of the photographer's friends, relatives, lovers, and business associates. The picture that emerges is that of an elusive man, confident yet riddled by insecurities, dashing to some and nerdy to others, charming, focused and fueled by his work. By the one picture he kept taking.

That picture, whether it was a celebrity portrait, a nude, or an African landscape, was filled with an entirely distinctive, sublime light and structured around strong, beautiful forms. Ritts was born and bred in Los Angeles, and it was the alluring SoCal light that colored his vision. He loved and exploited the light, particularly the "golden hour" of flattering, warm light that burned just after dawn and just before sunset.

Golden Age

"His style was unmistakable," says Laurie Kratochvil, the former director of photography at Rolling Stone. She describes that style as a combination of the dramatic, high-key Hollywood portraits done in the 1930s and 1940s by George Hurrell and the sculptural, warm-toned photography of Edward Weston

It was a powerful look -- a look that idealized -- and it came at exactly the right time. The heavy-duty, highly-retouched glamour of Hollywood's golden age, captured by the photographers like of Hurrell, Laszlo Willinger, and Clarence Bull, went out of style with the end of the big studios in the 1960s. A new, more natural style of movie star portraiture took hold. America seemed to be done with heroes in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate.

"That glamour thing was just dead," is the way L.A. photographer Matthew Rolston put it to Churchward. It was Rolston, along with Ritts and another photographer, Greg Gorman, who helped create a new golden age of Hollywood glamour as the zeitgeist turned back on itself during the Reagan era. Rolston points to Andy Warhol's Interview, with its campy adoration of celebrity, as the magazine that turned it all around.

The New Hollywood of 1980s was ruled not by studio bosses but by the stars themselves, aided by their super-agents and super-publicists, and Ritts, who could turn a young actor into an icon in the glossy pages of Vanity Fair, became the town's go-to photographer. As Jane Sarkin, the magazine's features editor, says in the book, "Tina Brown felt very comfortable with saying to Herb, 'OK, take someone and let's make them into a star.'"

"Herb made people look larger than life," David Harris, the current design director of Vanity Fair, told me during an interview in 2008. "It was the way he positioned his subjects, the way he rendered them graphically. And it was the tonal warmth of his images. When he talked about retouching his pictures, he used words like 'gorgeous' and 'dewy.' He knew what he wanted." He also knew what other people wanted, and he often knew it before they did.

Art and Commerce

Ritts might have remained the essential Hollywood photographer of his time, except that he wanted something more and understood that photography was no longer just a medium. It was a thriving art commodity. And modern collectors were just as interested in contemporary fashion and portraiture as they were in historical, "serious" stuff.

He began publishing books the featured his celebrity pictures along with nudes, landscapes, and still-life images. He traveled to Africa and produced an unlikely photographic travelogue. But the pictures were unmistakably Herb Ritts pictures.

In 1996 he capped it all with a mammoth exhibition at Boston's Museum of Fine Art, the kind of place that once would never have shown any type of photography, let alone pictures of Elizabeth Taylor and naked male body builders. By the time the show closed, a record quarter of a million people had come to see it.

Ritts died after undergoing years of experimental treatments for AIDS. The Herb Ritts Foundation was formed after his death to manage his estate, and in 2007 it made a $2.5 million gift to the MFA for a permanent photography space called the Herb Ritts Gallery. So in a sense Ritts has become a photographic institution.

And now there is the book all about that golden time. Today, Hollywood is filled with a prodigious amount of photographic talent. But, says Vanity Fair's David Harris, "Herb has never been replaced."

Perhaps that's because the celebrity culture that Ritts helped create has changed since his death. Today's stars aren't what they once were; they've been devalued by countless forgettable reality TV personalities, by Internet gossip sites and tabloid magazines that find the perfect expression of celebrity to be the candid photo of someone slouching out of a Starbucks, latte in hand. In an era when we can watch movies on cell phones, how can we expect movie stars to be bigger than life?

Herb Ritts's photographs were made to last, but our idols today are not.

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