Remembering Herb Ritts

Walking through the J. Paul Getty Museum's new exhibition, Herb Ritts: L.A. Style, I kept thinking back 20 years to when I wrote a profile of Ritts for the Los Angeles Times. I was writing about the photography market for the paper, and there were few bigger players locally than Ritts.

Djimon with octopus, Hollywood. 1989. © Herb Ritts Foundation

Familiar photos of such people as Madonna and Richard Gere are among the show's highlights, but the beautifully printed photographs feature unfamiliar as well as familiar figures, celebrities as well as people made celebrities by Ritts' photos. Perhaps more important, the exhibition demonstrates a very creative mind at work, maximizing his models, light and settings.

Not that I was surprised. The day of our visit, Ritts eagerly gathered up his magazine layouts and books, proudly turning pages for me to see one photograph after another. As he did so, I sensed that the tentative smile and ingenuousness charming me must surely have gone a long way in similarly charming his photography subjects. This show proves me right with its oiled bodies, strangely turned limbs, unexpected celebrity poses and even a model crowned by a dead octopus.

Ritts' Hollywood Hills home was a showplace for photography, including print after print by photographers he admired. I recall he'd built ledges along the walls for photographs, rather than framing them, so he could move them around. The day I was there, his library's prime spot was held by one of Berenice Abbott's glorious photos of New York at night, and around the house were recognizable masterpieces by other legendary photographers.

He considered himself a photography collector, he told me, and on display were great photos by Man Ray and Edward Weston, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Paul Outerbridge. He said he had just purchased others by Joel Peter Witkin and Robert Mapplethorpe, and when we later discussed the photo market, we talked as much about his buying more of their work as about others buying his work.

The Getty's companion show, "Portraits of Renown: Photography and the Cult of Celebrity," places Ritts' work adjacent to walls of iconic photographs by everyone from Nadar and Edward Steichen to Diane Arbus and Andy Warhol. Ritts died in 2002, but remembering the way he spoke of his photographic influences--including Weston for his simplicity, Helmut Newton for his risk-taking, and Irving Penn for nearly everything else--I imagine the juxtaposition would have made him a happy man indeed.

Stephanie Seymour, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Tatjana Patitz and Naomi Cambell pose for Herb Ritts in Hollywood in 1989. © Herb Ritts Foundation

Tatjana, veiled head, Joshua Tree 1988. © Herb Ritts Foundation

"Herb Ritts: L.A. Style" is at the Getty Center through August 26.

Barbara Isenberg is a Los Angeles-based arts writer. Her most recent book is the Los Angeles Times bestseller "Conversations with Frank Gehry."

Previously on LA Observed:
Getty acquires 69 Herb Ritts photographs
The Getty's gardens to close for three months
Getty Research Institute acquires two Man Ray archives

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