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Hot Shots : Top Photographers Rival Star Clients in Celebrity Status

Times Staff Writer

Dancing in black spike heels and a sheer chiffon dress, Kim Basinger wants the music changed.

She’s purring.

She’s writhing.

She’s rubbing her back against a chalk-white backdrop like a silky cat on this breezy, Hollywood rooftop.

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And she’s heard enough of chart-topper Bobby Brown.

“Put on ‘Bad,’ the Michael Jackson tape,” urges the sultry star of “9 1/2 Weeks,” “Blind Date” and the forthcoming “Batman” with Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton.

“Beautiful! Go! Wow! That’s great!” photographer Herb Ritts encourages Basinger, firing staccato shots so fast his finger is glued to the camera’s shutter release.

“That’s nice with the tension on your legs like that. . . . Look at me right here. . . . Turn to this side. It’s better . . . so I see your leg.”

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Here, on the rooftop of Ritts’ studio, seven people are working this shoot, including a magazine art director, style editor, hairdresser, makeup artist and various assistants. But only Ritts seems to notice that Basinger is displeased with the music--she’s requested the Jackson tape twice--and he calmly directs an assistant to make the change.

Few details escape the eyes (or ears) of Ritts, the internationally acclaimed photographer who’s become as big a star as many of the personalities he captures on film.

Though best known for his cover portraits for such magazines as Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Interview, GQ and Vogue, Ritts is also celebrated for his work in slick fashion magazines from Italy to Japan, for his art prints and nudes exhibited in galleries worldwide and for his well-received coffee table book of last year, “Herb Ritts Pictures.”

He even had a billboard on Santa Monica Boulevard celebrating the book last year.

In the opinion of many observers, including some of his competitors, Ritts, 37, is simply the hottest photographer around, one of a very slim group of image-makers who’ve achieved star status in their own right.

Says his friend Matthew Rolston, a newer but fast-rising member of this select group: “This is Herb’s moment.”

How do photographers make the leap from being solid magazine photographers to being relentlessly sought after by stars and editors alike? What makes a particular photographic vision desirable for setting the tone on everything from record album covers to movie billboards to magazine covers?

And why are Los Angeles-based photographers Ritts and Rolston--along with such well-known photographers as Annie Leibovitz, Helmut Newton and Bruce Weber--suddenly finding themselves at the front of the pack, while other extremely gifted individuals have yet to make the cut?

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“It’s a change in perception,” suggests Derek Ungless, art director at Vogue and formerly art director of Rolling Stone.

“Being hot, which is a particularly ‘80s phenomenon, seems to account for more than being good sometimes, but in the case of Annie and Herb and some others it’s not the case. They work for certain types of people, certain magazines. They produce talked-about images. There’s a point where it dawns on the stars themselves that if these photographers’ pictures are talked about, by inference, they get talked about.”

Ungless also cites an obvious but sometimes overlooked factor: Star photographers “make people look good. They make them look extraordinary. And once they start to be hot, they get hotter.”

So how do you get hot?

“I’ve never really figured it out. It’s not the pictures. It has to be personality,” says Temple Smith, picture editor of Esquire, referring to the fact that a number of celebrity portrait specialists produce exceptional photographs but they’re not considered to be heating up the inside track.

“Matthew (Rolston) and Herb (Ritts) are in a class of their own. Matthew’s a fabulous photographer and so’s Herb and so are other photographers but they don’t get the access (to celebrities). When I call Mr. or Ms. Celebrity and ask them to shoot with somebody, they often have an opinion. Oftentimes, the celebrity will tell me who they want to shoot with, though we much prefer to shape a book according to our own interests,” she adds.

But what accounts for celebrities requesting or even demanding to work with Ritts, Rolston or another “name?”

Actor Richard Gere, a friend who unwittingly helped launch Ritts’ career in the late ‘70s by posing for just-for-fun shots that later appeared worldwide, says he can’t speak for others. But Gere likes the way Ritts “gets it done quick and I always recognize the person in the photograph. . . .”

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Ritts’ style is simple though mysterious and dramatic, often using natural-light shadows, stark backgrounds and the strength of a subject’s character to carry the photo. Says Gere: “Herb doesn’t impose some sort of exterior personality on the photograph. . . . I think in the end, the subjects really recognize themselves in the shots. . . . Once you’ve worked with Herb, you know you won’t get burned.”

Gere, who has been staying at Ritts’ Hollywood Hills home (featured last year in HG) until his own house is completed, acknowledges that it’s commonplace for celebrities to request to work with certain photographers: “Of course, you request. You request the best. He’s a lousy cook, though, and he doesn’t do laundry.”

Esquire’s Smith affirms that Ritts, Rolston and other top photographers are not about to produce unflattering work of their subjects, though they may strive to avoid traditional images of star glamour and to expose deeper, perhaps overlooked sides of their personas. In her experience, this is accomplished by establishing a strong rapport with personalities that allows them to be comfortable in a photo session--a challenging task.

“Both Herb and Matthew have developed relationships with people. They understand about celebrity, that a celebrity needs to be treated differently. They won’t admit they demand to be treated differently, but they do. (Photographer) Greg Gorman also gets a lot of pictures because (celebrities) are his friends,” Smith says.

Free-lance fashion stylist Elisabetta Rogiani thinks that the reason Ritts and Rolston are relentlessly sought after all over the world is that, unlike many other photographers who work almost exclusively in celebrity portraiture, they also shoot fashion extensively and internationally.

“I think celebrities finally understand they need a fashion photographer to make them look beautiful. Everybody wants to look like the girls on the cover of Vogue. They want the same kind of lighting and clothes and makeup the fashion people use. . . . When I work with celebrities, they don’t want to look exactly like a model, but they want to have their look updated.”

Sometimes, work with one very well-known client can catapult an accomplished photographer into the picture world’s upper echelons.

Rolston, who will only reveal his age as “thirtysomething,” recalls he struck relative success shortly after becoming a photographer at 18.

Indeed, his first clients were such publications as Interview and Harper’s Bazaar and Rolston eventually became well known for producing surrealistic fashion pictures and high-styled celebrity portraits using detail-rich sets, often constructed in his Melrose Avenue studio.

But he considers meeting and repeatedly photographing Michael Jackson a few years ago, just after the singer concluded the “Victory Tour,” to be the turning point that propelled him to a prominent postion on the map to the stars’ photographers.

As for affording celebrities special treatment, Rolston acknowledges this is common practice. Like most others in the business, he says, he observes such practices as having a member of his staff find out what type of food the celebrity likes and then providing it during a shoot.

But to Rolston--a delicate, quiet, almost cherubic man who radiates extraordinary sensitivity and serenity--it is basic, sincere respect that is the key to establishing rapport with his clients.

“I think liking people is No. 1--and accepting everybody’s humanity, putting aside their fame while still maintaining respect for their position,” he says at his studio, wearing wheat-colored jeans and a matching sweater over a white T-shirt with a few inches of pearls peeking out from around his neck.

While Rolston’s images--at the moment they’re on the covers of the February and March issues of Esquire, as well as on the March and April covers of Harper’s Bazaar--are increasingly celebrated, he has long been appreciated for his gentle, loving nature.

Says Omar Albertto of Omar’s Men, the chic Los Angeles-based modeling agency: “His personality is really amazing. Who cannot fall in love with Matthew? You have to love him. You can’t hate him.”

Like Ritts, Rolston has reached the point where he can turn down work that doesn’t interest him, is booked months in advance and travels constantly throughout the world to shoot on location. He’s also studying cinematography two days a week because he expects magazines to move into a broadcast format in the next decade or so--and he finds the current video expressions of fashion to be crude and visually unsophisticated.

Lately, Rolston says, his portrait style is becoming more simplified and he’s using fewer props and elaborate sets. Fashion stylist Raymond Lee, with the Los Angeles firm Cloutier, notes that Rolston has even persuaded some stars to be photographed without makeup.

“He did that with Jodie Foster and Anjelica Huston,” Lee says. “They let him do it because they have such confidence in him.”

Esquire’s Smith describes the look of Rolston’s current pictures as “very warm and friendly and accessible and at the same time it’s sensual and glamorous. It’s a warmer style than Annie Leibovitz’s. Her pictures say ‘Hi, you don’t know me; come here a little closer and I’ll tell you.’ Matthew’s pictures are, ‘Come on in and sit down.’ ”

It’s a style, she says, that’s made him most difficult to book: “I had a shoot recently where Matthew was more busy than the celebrity. It’s a problem because he’s in great demand.”

To hear Smith and other art directors tell it, trying to get on their schedules is about the only real problem in working with hot photographers; it’s a given the pictures will turn out satisfactorily.

“You’re always sure you’re going to get something usable, at least 99% of the time,” says Charles Churchward Jr., art and design director of Vanity Fair, who’s worked repeatedly with Ritts, Leibovitz, Rolston and other international photography stars.

Only rarely is there a major flop. Like last year, Churchward recalls, when he and Ritts spent a week in London negotiating with Prince’s representatives, only to have the pop star agree to a shoot and then pull out minutes before it was scheduled to begin.

Though Ritts is known as something of a “control freak” among magazine editors for arguing forcefully about how his work is edited and displayed, Churchward notes that Prince proved to be “the ultimate ‘control freak'--he practically wanted to click the shutter.”

As for his own tendency to direct art directors, Ritts contends that it’s just an indication of how strongly he feels about his work.

“I’m definitely particular. There’s so much effort put into these things from day one. . . . I know magazines too well,” he explains in his characteristic nasal tones. “People are ready for me to get on the phone. The faxes (of photo layouts) fly. I care. I really care about it and they know it’s coming from a good place.”

They also know, Ritts adds, that if he’s seriously displeased about the way his work is presented, that he will no longer work with the magazine beyond any contractual agreements.

By their own admission, both Ritts and Rolston are workaholics, working and traveling relentlessly. According to her assistant, Leibovitz was too overscheduled even to be interviewed for this article.

As Ritts describes his situation, “I’m booked months in advance. I shoot every day. I’m trying to take weekends off this year. I just turned down a job for $40,000 three weeks ago--a movie ad that involved travel. But I’ll do some things for no money.”

Among those noncommissioned shots are Ritts’ nudes and other erotic pictures, some unabashedly homosexual, such as those contained in “Herb Ritts Pictures.”

At the moment, the photographer is completing work on another book for his publisher, “Twin Palms,” actually two volumes in a single slipcover. But he’s not ready to reveal its theme, describing it only as “a different subject matter” and set for release later this year.

An easy bet is that it will consist of Ritts’ favorite sort of work, the stuff he shoots just for himself, which he claims to do more and more, even when he’s working for a specific client.

As Basinger says of their recent collaboration, within earshot of the magazine editors producing and ultimately paying for the rooftop shoot, “We don’t do this for magazines. Herb and I do this for ourselves. He’s real secure in what he does. That allows you to be free. I’ll shoot anything for Herb.”

Basinger reveals, however, that Ritts will not photograph just anything for her. She’s asked. He’s said no, though she declines to elaborate on the specifics.

It hasn’t seemed to matter in the slightest.

Says Basinger, who has worked with Ritts repeatedly in the last six years: “I shoot with other people as well and there are some fabulous photographers. But I’ve always been with Herb in some vein. We were probably brother and sister in our last lifetime. Shooting with Herb is like going to another part of my house.”


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