Getty Museum acquires set of Herb Ritts photographs

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As of last month, the Getty Museum did not have a single image by Herb Ritts in its extensive photography collection. Now it has 69 black-and-white images by the late L.A. fashion photographer valued at close to $1 million, acquired from his foundation in a single transaction that was part gift and part purchase.

Getty associate curator Paul Martineau says the change reflects his own interest in fashion photography as well as a commitment by the department to “strengthen its holdings in the area.”

Ritts, who died in 2002, helped to popularize a certain high-drama, high-contrast, starkly beautiful style associated with the 1980s, before fashion photographers began working so hard to make models look realistic, trashy and bedraggled. This acquisition includes some recognizable images, such as an early portrait of his friend Richard Gere smoking at a gas station (done when Ritts was still a Lucite furniture sales rep) and theatrical shots of supermodels like Cindy, Christie and Naomi.

Perhaps in part because of his commercial success in magazines and advertising, Ritts has never been fully embraced by the museum world. Some art critics dismiss him as Robert Mapplethorpe lite.


But Martineau hopes that this material will open eyes: “The compositions are so strong and simple that sometimes people think they’re facile, but that’s not the case,” he says, commenting on the tonality of the prints and the range of art historical references.

He will soon have a chance to make his case to L.A. museum-goers: He is planning a Ritts exhibition at the Getty, drawing in part from the new acquisition, for April 2012.


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-- Jori Finkel