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EYE OF THE BEHOLDER

Bill Sharpsteen's last story for the magazine was on female dockworkers

WE ARE SUPPOSED TO BELIEVE THAT HERB RITTS BEGAN his photographic career with a camera. There’s this story repeated a thousand times by Ritts and his friends about how he and his buddy Richard Gere, then an actor with a short portfolio, went for a ride in the California desert in 1978. A tire blew somewhere near San Bernardino. To kill time while in a local garage getting the car fixed, Ritts started shooting Gere with a cheapie Miranda 35mm camera that he had bought for a vacation.

In his white tank top, with long hair and cigarette dangling, Gere could have been an insolent mechanic stopping to yawn. “It was just fooling around,” Gere says, claiming not to remember much about the day. “It wasn’t for anyone but us.”

A few months later, with three film roles quickly making him famous, Gere’s publicist asked for the pictures. Ritts sent her the garage photos, and just to show what a helpful neophyte he was, he even enclosed the negatives. The pictures appeared in several magazines throughout Europe and the U.S., including Mademoiselle, Vogue and Esquire, which ran them under the headline “The Beefcake Boys.”

Ritts, then 27, was suddenly a published portrait photographer, though one who still worked as a sales rep for his family’s furniture store in West Los Angeles. “I never gloated on it,” he says. “I just kind of moved on.”

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The real beginning, however, is a bit too prosaic to make a great story. Seems that one day months before, he and a friend stood outside a neighbor’s garage in the Hollywood Hills. When the friend stepped from the hard sunlight into the open shade inside, Ritts discovered how the soft light changed the man’s face in such kind, flattering ways that it became a radiant mask. As the friend turned in a different direction, the reflected sun sparkled in his eyes. Ritts didn’t own a camera at the time, but that’s when he began to appreciate what the right kind of light can do. It wasn’t as much a technical lesson as it was a lesson about the nature of beauty.

Now, 22 years later in Hollywood’s Quixote Studios, that early lesson still guides Ritts’ work. His four photo assistants are frantically setting up an impromptu shot next to a large, open door that lets in the afternoon glow--garage light revisited. This time, the subject is actor George Clooney, who, made up to look like Clark Gable, casually leans against a ladder with a kiss-me-Scarlett smirk. And this time, Ritts isn’t just fooling around with a friend. He’s shooting for Vanity Fair and using cameras with screws worth more than that original Miranda. The studio is crowded. Three hair and makeup artists hover. The magazine’s stylist comes and goes, largely ignored by Ritts. One assistant checks the focus on Ritts’ camera while another stands by with film. A third operates the light meter.

Still, Ritts is after the same essential beauty he saw that day in the Hollywood Hills garage. Actor Edward Norton, who has been before Ritts’ camera four times, thinks capturing natural beauty on film is less a professional imperative than a Ritts personality trait: “I feel like Herb really does see everything as beautiful . . . it’s almost as if he can’t help but see it in its idealized form.”

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CELEBRITY PHOTOGRAPHY WAS DONE LONG BEFORE PEOPLE magazine’s 1974 debut. Since the 1860s and the mass production of cartes-de-visite--2-by-3-inch paper prints of luminaries such as Queen Victoria, Horatio Alger and Friedrich Nietzsche--we’ve had celebrity images designed for a seller’s profit and an idol’s promotion. But it’s the rare photographer who can immortalize his subjects while also making them seem somehow mortal.

This, some say, is Herb Ritts’ gift. It’s as if he lives in a world where no one is ugly.

His mostly black-and-white portraits of the glorified among us are shot with a facile eye for simplicity and style. They often are deceptively casual, sometimes ironic, stripped bare of backgrounds and occasionally clothes. They look like lucky shots of our friends on a good day, without the outlandish staging of David LaChapelle or the edginess of Annie Leibovitz. Ritts instead turns the gods and goddesses of the moment into the icons next door or can sometimes make “unglamorized portraits of glamorous people,” according to David Fahey, a Los Angeles photography art dealer and Ritts’ exclusive gallery representative.

Ritts treats us to the beautiful few just horsing around--Julia Roberts in her boyfriend’s skivvies, Madonna clutching her crotch, a cross-dressing Cindy Crawford, a pregnant Annette Bening lounging with husband Warren Beatty on their couch, some bare-chested gym rat named Fred holding two tires. Ritts also has created remarkable portraits of Ronald Reagan, Tom Cruise, Stephen Hawking, the Dalai Lama and Monica Lewinsky at the height of her fame. They’re lasting, memorable images, and yet some have derided them as mere celebrity posters with no deeper artistic value. One particularly mean-spirited critic even compared the Jewish Ritts to Third Reich documentarian Leni Riefenstahl and dismissed his work as “Master-Race Eroticism.” But Ingrid Sischy, Interview magazine’s editor in chief, thinks the iconographic quality of Ritts’ work is what sets him apart from his contemporaries. “There might be dozens and dozens of photographers in this field,” she says, “but there aren’t that many who can make classics.”

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Ritts’ ability to create enduring images makes him popular with stars who recognize the promotional value of photos that outlast the magazines in which they’re printed. But Ritts, now 48, is clearly weary of being pegged as a celebrity photographer. Nearly half a million people toured a four-city traveling retrospective of his work, and Ritts points out that only half of the images in that show featured celebrities. The other half were Ritts’ fashion shots and personal work, mostly of nudes.

“I think sometimes because the way the world turns, because you’re suddenly shooting Madonna, that’s all somebody thinks of you,” he says.

Still, it’s not a bad way to make a living. Ritts has an exclusive contract with publisher Conde Nast said to be worth about $1 million a year. As a fashion photographer, he works for Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Chanel, Revlon and Giorgio Armani, earning some $40,000 a day plus another $40,000 or so for usage rights. On top of that, he often gets $30,000 to $60,000 per day for crew, equipment rental and travel costs.

In addition, film studios such as Paramount and Warner Bros. hire him for movie advertising. Ritts also co-owns a production company called Ritts/Hayden that makes commercials and music videos, some of which Ritts directs. According to his agent, Vernon Jolly, Ritts turns down about one-third of all offered assignments.

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Because money isn’t everything.

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THE FAMILIAR FACES RITTS SHOOTS FOR AMERICAN MAGAZINES occasionally “have a certain view of themselves and aren’t willing to try something else.” (That’s about as testy as Ritts ever gets about his subjects.) But he’s often more excited during shoots for European magazines, which give him broader creative control.

“I really do enjoy the fact that the Europeans, I think, respect and appreciate photography more than American publications,” he says.

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In the case of a two-day fashion shoot for French Vogue last January, Ritts says he was paid next to nothing but took the job because contributing fashion editor Sarajane Hoare agreed to let him do all of the things that her American peers would never allow--such as having feature model Frankie Ryder wear only a sneer and a live Burmese python. Ritts draped the snake over Ryder’s back as she stretched across a rock at Vasquez Rocks in Agua Dulce, near Santa Clarita. The idea was that Ryder eventually would don clothes--this was a fashion shoot, after all--made from snakeskin, and Ritts clearly enjoyed himself as he committed his snake-and-model scene to film.

“I don’t think American magazines are stretching him to his full potential,” Hoare explains. “You see, [U.S.] magazines don’t really publish weird images.”

Things are considerably more sedate during the Vanity Fair shoot. Clooney poses with blackened hair, sporting a fake pencil-thin mustache parted in the middle and a black pinstriped, single-breasted Armani suit with white shirt and gray tie. The bespectacled Ritts, by contrast, is wearing a navy blue cap that hides thinning, combed-back hair, a hooded black jacket and warmup-style pants.

Helmut Newton, the 79-year-old master photographer of the bizarre and erotic (and Ritts’ idol), is shooting a Rolex ad next door to the Clooney session. He offers this: “I think [Ritts] has a kind of human quality that is very warm. Very important for the kind of work that he does. I wish I had that warmth.”

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“Nobody rubs him the wrong way,” says Erik Hyman, a 32-year-old entertainment attorney and Ritts’ companion for four years. When the two met at a mutual friend’s dinner party in New York, Hyman recalls, “there was just something about him that was lovely and open and cute. I immediately fell in love with him.”

Before Hyman graduated from Columbia Law School, Ritts often arranged for assignments on the East Coast so he could visit. The two now live together in Ritts’ Hollywood Hills home (Ritts also owns houses in Malibu and Santa Fe). Ritts’ mother, Shirley, believes Hyman has influenced her son to be a devoted uncle to the seven children of his three siblings. She also terms her son’s relationship with Hyman the best thing to happen to Ritts.

Ritts’ warmth isn’t confined to the studio. He gave his mother a $75,000 gift certificate to hip clothier Barneys New York for her 75th birthday. He helps raise charity funds, often for AIDS groups, and at one Boston event he donated a print that helped raise $475,000. He also has befriended many of his competitors and has been known to recommend them for jobs he couldn’t take. His birthday parties have been huge affairs with 200 or more guests.

Ritts also remembers personal details about people who pass through his life. His amiable chatter never comes across as glad-handing. Even when Ritts talks about his father’s struggle with Alzheimer’s, Hyman says, Ritts does not dwell on the tragedy of the disease but instead describes Herb Sr.'s “blissful, sweet, sort of I’m-not-sure-what’s-going-on look” and concludes: “He’s not unhappy.”

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Ritts is “all-round happy,” mother Shirley Ritts says. If one were to dig for his dark side, the best you could come up with is a medium-gray side. Ritts can be as persnickety as his subjects are famous, and he can be demanding as he tries to control every aspect of his photos’ publication.

“He’s controlling. Don’t let anyone tell you he’s not,” says David Harris, Vanity Fair’s design director. “There are photographers out there who are happy to give you the stuff and then move on . . . He wants to maintain control over the shoot once it leaves his hands.” Later, Harris adds: “I’m fond of Herb. I’m saying this with a smile on my face, but there have been times when if I had to pick up the phone one more time, I was just going to say, ‘No, it cannot be changed. Do not call again.’ And put the phone down, and not take that last call.”

Vogue’s design director, Charles Churchward, echoes that opinion: “He whines so much, I don’t know anymore.”

But whining sometimes works to Ritts’ advantage, especially when it involves coaxing his well-known subjects into poses they might first refuse to consider. It worked the day he convinced Sylvester Stallone to hoist his then-fiancee, Brigitte Nielsen, triumphantly over his head at a New York beach, and again the time he cajoled jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie into puffing out his famous cheeks at the photo session’s end, when the equipment was nearly packed away.

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“I know when to quit,” Ritts says so innocently you want to believe him. “But I don’t like to if I really believe in something.”

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RITTS’ PERSONALITY TRAITS--THE CONGENIALITY, THE COERCION BY smile, the perfectionism--first surfaced when he was growing up in Brentwood. Ritts, his sister and two brothers lived in a 27-room Spanish-style house on 21/2 wooded acres financed by the family business, Ritts Co., which manufactured and sold Lucite furniture.

Ritts says he was a straight-A student at Palisades High School not because he was especially intelligent, but because of his drive to excel. Despite the family wealth, he worked summers and learned how to be independent by staying alone with his brothers and sister at a family-owned cabin on Catalina Island.

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He graduated from New York’s Bard College in 1974 with a degree in economics and a minor in art history. Without professional ambitions, he decided to join Ritts Co. and sell furniture while “dabbling” in the arts, mainly as an observer. Ritts doesn’t recall any time during this period that he aspired to be a photographer, and there you have Ritts’ true essence: He just let it happen to him.

“I understand it very well,” Shirley Ritts says. “He accepts his own good. I’m the same way. Things come to you. You deal with them. You’re grateful for them. You use them. And you go on.”

That was certainly the case after the Gere photographs were published. Ritts traveled to New York City for a sales convention and stayed with a friend. The friend’s live-in girlfriend was an editor for Italian Harper’s Bazaar magazine. Ritts had brought along his “portfolio"--a paper bag full of pictures--to get his friend’s opinion of them. The girlfriend spied the shots but didn’t say anything. Then, three weeks later, she sent him four red metal trunks containing a collection of men’s clothes from an Italian designer. She followed up with a phone call: Would he mind photographing them?

Ritts enlisted his roommate, a successful model named Matt Collins, for the shoot. The pair spent two days in the diffuse natural light beneath the Santa Monica Pier photographing the clothes, and the pictures were published. Collins also introduced Ritts to photographer Bruce Weber, known for his photographs of young male models who ostensibly showcase clothes but more often display strapping, tanned bodies. Weber helped Ritts with contacts at fashion magazines and became Ritts’ mentor. Some say Ritts copied Weber’s style; Ritts acknowledges Weber’s stylistic “influence.”

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That influence led to a 1985 Per Lui magazine spread called “The Boys of the Body Shop,” which once again took Ritts to the garage venue. Originally assigned to photograph men’s raincoats, Ritts deemed them “hideous trench coats” and instead took his swarthy models to a Hollywood gas station at Highland and Willoughby. He dressed them in vintage jeans, overalls and a few chains rented from Western Costumes. The best-known result of this slightly homoerotic tableau was “Fred With Tires,” featuring model Fred Harding looking weary and holding two Winston tires in his muscular arms.

Of course, this had nothing to do with raincoats, which stayed in the box. Ritts figured Per Lui wouldn’t mind, and indeed, the magazine ran the pictures. The accompanying copy talked about the American “supermacho” look and left it at that.

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IN THE MID-1980S, EAST COAST MAGAZINE EDITORS DIDN’T THINK much of West Coast photographers. Photographer Matthew Rolston, who, like Ritts, is based in Los Angeles, says the editors found many of the images from the West “tinselly, vulgar, overdone [and] Vegas-y” and steered their business elsewhere. The pared-down, minimal quality of Ritts’ work was different. “Maybe [Ritts’ portraits] didn’t try to reveal the inner angst and depth of [celebrities],” says David Schonauer, editor in chief of American Photo, “but they brought out the classic aspects of glamour.”

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Soon Ritts was a photographer with a fame quotient only a notch or two lower than some of his subjects, but he claims to never analyze his work, his fame or his fortune. “He doesn’t really understand it,” explains Hyman. “He thinks it’s strange that anybody ever recognizes him. He thinks he’s just a photographer.”

Others aren’t quite so reticent about his work. For four months in 1996 and 1997, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston staged a massive retrospective of 245 Ritts photographs, and the elevation of his work to the level of art brought out a few testy critics. The Boston Globe called the show “a quick read--art for the attention span of the ‘90s.” The Toronto Globe & Mail termed Ritts the “poster boy of pop” and sniffed, ". . . crowds don’t need special training to appreciate the work.”

The museum’s director, Malcolm Rogers, says he staged the retrospective as a way to shake up Boston: “If the museum is no longer a stately dowager, but has a little more of the wild child about it, that’s rather fun.”

He made the right choice in Ritts. The show attracted more than 253,000 people before leaving for two more U.S. cities and Vienna. Boston locals argued that the enthusiastic turnout--the museum’s ninth largest--wasn’t so much a result of great work as the fact that so many celebrity portraits were included. As one paper put it, “Given the glut of celebrity images, do we really need another picture of Dennis Rodman’s tattoos, Arnold Schwarz-enegger’s pectorals or Cindy Crawford’s beauty spot, no matter how gorgeously they’re photographed?”

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PERHAPS NOT, BUT THAT MIGHT be the wrong question. Landscape photographs have been around just as long, and yet no one cries out over the thousandth rendition of Half Dome, or, for that matter, when the Grand Canyon is used to sell an SUV. So redundancy isn’t the issue.

Perhaps a more appropriate question is this: Is Ritts less of an artist because his recent subjects have included celebrities such as Tiger Woods and President Clinton? Ritts argues that it doesn’t matter as long as the pictures hold up as well-done portraits. He recognizes the fleeting nature of fame and insists quality will transcend the celebrity of the moment. “Fifty or 60 years from now, if someone sees a portrait of Madonna, they really won’t care that it was Madonna or they won’t know who the hell she was,” he says. “But it’ll hold up as a portrait of an interesting woman you want to know. You feel her. There’s something coming from it.”

The art world may not see it that way. “It depends on who’s writing the history,” says former New York Times art critic Andy Grundberg. “But if the history is about people who changed the direction or changed the tenor of the photography that got done, that’s not [Ritts’] strong point.”

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Ritts is at a point where his career is nearly self-sustaining, critics or no. Stars are comfortable with him, as are editors. His eight books have all been big sellers and his limited-edition photographs often sell out. “He’s at the top level,” says art dealer Fahey, Ritts’ gallery rep. “In photography and in the arts, pretty much once you get to the top level, you don’t really go down.”

If nothing else, Ritts hasn’t lost his enthusiasm. He appears happiest as he describes how great Clooney will look caressed by the soft afternoon glow coming through the studio’s entrance. Reminded how his comment echoes his description of the garage light he first noticed more than two decades ago, Ritts says, “Yeah, I feel right at home.”


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