Herb Ritts gave us an accurate reading of the 1980s and '90s as a monochrome fantasia. His photographs were a steady Prozac drip of the para-California of Ronald Reagan optimism and David Hockney swimming pools. Madonna closes her eyes and tilts her head toward the sky, and all is well. Pee-wee Herman saddles up Tom Mix-style and sticks out his tongue. Chris Isaak drips saltily, a surfing merman troubadour, washed ashore and deliciously brokenhearted.
The brilliant lie of Los Angeles always seemed more true through the lens of Herb Ritts, where people were always falling in love: Warren Beatty settled down with Annette Bening, and Ritts had Beatty press his head to her pregnant belly. Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman embrace, topless, skin on skin. It was a happy place, if fleetingly so.
He died Thursday at age 50, of pneumonia. (This alone makes you think of the '80s all over again, when pneumonia, in the fashion world, was rarely just pneumonia.)
Like his primary muse, Madonna, Ritts freely referenced other icons in his field. While she was Marlene or Marilyn or whomever, he was Herbert List, Horst P. Horst, Richard Avedon. Although he idealized beauty above all else (and what magazine reader wouldn't?), there was sometimes an underlying sense of damage and loss: Liz Taylor, denuded, her head scarred from brain surgery. Even scars and wrinkles and sags looked somehow beatific to Ritts. Frequently there were moments that looked like deep thought, which was only a style. Hollywood loves to play serious. There were no deep thoughts, which made these pictures what they really were: pleasure cruises.
Ritts grew up in a 27-room mansion in Beverly Hills -- next door to Steve McQueen -- and spent his summers at the family home on Catalina Island, where he had a sweet summer job pumping gas at the boat dock. (The family ran a successful furniture business.) All this happy childhood led us to a world where sassy movie stars strode and leapt and slouched along beaches in really terrific clothes. Sand and grime and wet hair took on ethereal qualities; sunshine and stucco were complicit; something as simple as a tire became a sex object.
Still, sex seemed to be a distant notion to Ritts, not as important as looking sexy. The people in some of his photographs acted sexy, but eroticism, through his lens, never translated. Most of his homoerotic "nudes" actually wore Calvin Klein briefs. Selling underwear, and selling magazines, and selling beauty: This is not a failure, by any stretch, though Ritts failed to win over serious critics. Maybe it was the Gap ads. (Ritts practically invented the Gap ad, celebrities major and minor pioneering the limits of casual ease in khakis and jean jackets.)
In the ways that count, Ritts mastered the late-20th-century conflict between art and commerce, by making one a little bit like the other. He had no noticeable conflict about the fact that art and commerce made him famous, rich, a household name, a trusted consort of supermodels. In this way, the photos didn't have to be art; nor could the photos be entirely dismissed as advertising.
There was an intimacy at work in these pictures, especially for magazine addicts. Ritts was known for instantly cozying up to his subjects, taking them, in showbiz parlance, to "new places," getting them "to do things that they were reluctant to do, because in the end they knew it would make a good photograph," his gallery rep, David Fahey, said in a statement Thursday.
In the end, everyone understands a hot photograph. If you had enough magazine subscriptions, you could begin to know your Herb Ritts from your Steven Meisel from your Bruce Weber from your Annie Leibowitz. It all went together as part of an era -- the Celebrity Age.
The story of Richard Gere, Herb Ritts and the flat tire is somehow apocryphal, and, though certainly embellished over time, still true: Ritts and Gere had met through a mutual friend and were driving through the desert one day in 1979.
Ritts had been taking photographs off and on, learning the craft while he worked for his family's furniture company. The car got a flat tire in San Bernardino, and while they were waiting for it to get fixed at one of those California desert gas stations that only seem to exist in Herb Ritts's photographs, he convinced Gere to pose for a picture. With a click, it seemed, Gere's career took off.
What are we seeing here, 23 years later?
Richard Gere, gorgeous, for one. The picture is supposed to be an accident, but at first glance it cannot possibly be. We're so inured to this kind of image now -- the studied cool, dirt as an accessory, the worship of the casual. All of millennial-era celebrityhood comes streaming forth from this ideal, whether it was Michelle Pfeiffer or Jack Nicholson or Sean Penn. Everyone wanted what the Gere picture had, easy to replicate and somehow still elusive.
"Fred With Tires" came five years later, when Ritts began to hit it big: Here is the reason some gay men, upon learning of the death of 50-year-old Herb Ritts, feel the way some straight men felt earlier this week upon learning of the death of 50-year-old Joe Strummer of the Clash. Sometimes a man does something, in his art, that scintillates the essence of a thing -- a song, a vibe, an image -- and this something begins to inhabit (and inhibit) everything else he does. What Strummer was to counterculture punk, Ritts was to establishment fame. Sooner or later the two must have met. (Is there a picture?)
Fred, a model (with tires), is overmuscled, and his hips and torso are chiseled impossibly. He's an exaggeration of a man, sheened in an '80s sweat. Such hard work lifting those tires. The pure, perfect fantasy of it overwhelms the senses; the sterility of "Fred With Tires" is negated by its attempt to be erotic. It was and is a popular postcard from the edge.
As Ritts moved forward, the photos took on a desperately interesting pomposity. Politicians became closer in species to movie stars, and vice versa. Buzz was everything, but buzz was pointless with the accompanying Herb Ritts photograph.
He also directed music videos: In "Cherish" (1989), Madonna frolics on a slow-motion beach with hunky mermen. In "Wicked Game," a year after that, Chris Isaak and then-supermodel Helena Christensen roll around on yet another perfect black-and-white beach, showing none of the discomfort usually associated with wet swimsuits and sand. His celeb shots became more dramatic, more clinical, more of a production; perhaps, like the 4,000-word fluff pieces they ran with, they were too much. Elsewhere, Ritts shot serious subjects, in serious light, perhaps as artistic penance. For this versatility magazine editors adored Ritts.
So did Mr. and Mrs. Pottery Barn. Go into people's homes now and more and more of them have wedding photos or baby pictures that bespeak a Herb Ritts idealism in the consumer world: stark, black frames around matted black-and-white photographs of brides and grooms or fashionable toddlers. Gay male couples particularly like to have their commitment ceremonies photographed in the sepia-rich tones of photographers who learned to ape Herb Ritts. And, perhaps immodestly, they'll display this photo prominently in the living room, as if they were celebrities, as if they'd been on the cover of Vanity Fair.
Ah, the cover of Vanity Fair.
Ritts was part of the private fantasy that we would all one day be photographed by him, for the cover of Vanity Fair. He's the one who took that picture of Cindy Crawford standing over k.d. lang, whose face is lathered up and awaiting a close shave from the supermodel. (Ritts, working until his death, reportedly shot the upcoming cover for the March issue of Vanity Fair, the New York Post's Page Six reported yesterday -- without revealing who the subject is.)
Museum exhibitions came in the late 1990s, and even some of his most loyal fans had to admit that he wasn't made for the bigness of gallery walls. Ritts's pictures looked better in magazines and coffee-table books, considered from the solace of a sofa, or an airline seat. On magazine pages, Herb Ritts reigned supreme; at least until that time in your life when you no longer rushed to the mailbox to receive them.
Ever know someone who bought two copies of a glitzy magazine -- one to cut out the Herb Ritts pictures and put on the dorm room wall, and the other copy to save forever? Then you know the magic of Herb Ritts. Sitting in our bathrobes, in dumpy studio apartments, we were happy to pretend to live where he lived, and know all those icons he knew.