Putting on the Ritts

Herb Ritts’ monumental, black-and-white images of models and celebrities have infiltrated our collective consciousness ever since the American shutterbug took that infamous picture of his pal Richard Gere during a road trip in 1978.

That and many other images in a major Herb Ritts retrospective opening September 8 in Paris are well-known to a wide audience (especially those between the late 1980s and mid-1990s), from the opening picture of Alek Wek looking like an alien with her glazed, nude silhouette topped with a futuristic mohawk, through the hunky “mechanic” in 1984’s Fred with Tires, a Levi’s ad that set a standard for homoerotic imagery.

Indeed, it is hard not to stop and contemplate what is arguably his most famous image: the gaggle of 1990’s übermodels — Naomi, Christy, Tatjana, Stephanie, Cindy — posing nude, their bodies entwined, their hair falling in sultry waves. But interestingly, as with many of Ritts’ images, the effect is not aggressively sexual. Ritts actually promoted healthy bodies, sanguine expressions, and marveling at the wonder of nature at a time when nihilistic angst, grungy imagery, and neo-realism would change the face of fashion photography.

Working in the classical vein of Horst P. Horst, George Hoyningen Huene, and Robert Mapplethorpe, Ritts photographed the male body in all its chiseled glory. He also devoted part of his work to black men, as proved by the beautiful Bill T. Jones and Djimon Hounsou nudes. The female bodies were as high maintenance, as seen in the swimsuited Cordula Reyer snapped at various stages of a workout session.

Ritts’ images also celebrate the communion of men with nature, the epitomes of which are the clenched male bodies in a desert, a female naked torso jutting out of an ocean, or Waterfall IV, an image in which water hits a male torso like a blade.

Most of Herb Ritts’ oeuvre is devoid of extraneous details and, interestingly, clothing almost never takes centerstage — although his 1990 picture of a Versace dress forming a circle in a windy desert remains a standout.

The least publicized — and yet captivating — part of his work was taken during a trip to Africa, where he photographed Masai people. A majestic baobab tree, its bottom ravaged by an elephant, and a fig tree with intertwined roots are superb still lifes.

A second big room is largely devoted to his celebrity pictures, and the common factor is that while all beautiful and glamorous, these familiar faces never telegraph a sense of aloofness. Maybe that’s due to the fact that they almost never flaunt status symbols. One rarely looks at those pictures without a tender smile, be it in front of Dizzy Gillespie’s ballooning cheek, or a laughing Isabella Rossellini.

Only two moments allude to something harsh: his portrait of Liz Taylor showing the scar of her brain surgery and the picture of Christopher Reeves in his wheelchair — although there is a certain beauty in their resolve. 

Fourteen years after his death at age 50, this exhibition, curated by Alessandra Mauro, gives an opportunity to ponder the legacy of Herb Ritts. Eschewing subversive experimentation, he devoted his career to an unmistakable, classic beauty, whose origins hark back to ancient Greece. His work is about geometric shapes, spareness, simplicity, symmetry, well-honed and glorious bodies, and the celebration of beautiful, successful people. 

Herb Ritts: En Pleine Lumière, Sep 8 – Oct 30, 2016, Maison Européenne de la Photo, Paris

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