Sunday's Photography Book Review: Herb Ritts,"L.A. Style"

Updated: Dec 8, 2019

In my SPBR blogs I want to inspire photographers like me, offering a quick summary of the life of famous photographers as well as of their most popular exhibitions. And because it is more than 15 years that I travel the world always ensuring to check which photography exhibition is in town, I have by now a pretty big photography library which I am more than happy to share with you.

So guys this Sunday it's the turn of photographer Herb Ritts and his exhibition "L.A. Style", which I saw in LA at the beautiful show white J. Paul Getty Museums around 10 years ago. The exhibition was just like a biography of Herb Ritts and a selection of his best works in the areas of fashion, portraits and nude photography. The book contains more than 200 pages of beautiful black & white photos which transmit Ritts' sense of portraiture, intimate and classic, yet innovative and stylish. Is this skill that has brought Ritts at the level of photographers such as Irving Penn or Richard Avedon. Ritts has been able to bridge the gap between art and commerce, in a moment when the Pop Art movement of the 1960s and 1970s was emerging. Ritts has always been a fashion photographer creating beautiful images of nudes, models, celebrities and gaining the covers of magazines such as GQ, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stones etc.. while being wanted by top fashion designers such as Armani, Ferré, Versace, Valentino etc..

Herb Ritts was like most of us, modern photographers: we all have another job for living and dream that one day we'll bring our photography to the next level. In the same way Ritts studied economics and art history and worked as sales representative for his parent's successful furniture business. But the salesman job did not satisfy the creativity Ritts had and at the age of 22 he bought himself his first 35mm camera. Having always lived in LA, his friends counted as well models and actors, part of the Los Angeles art scene of the late 1970s. When one of his pictures taken on the set of the movie "The Champ" was reproduced by Newsweek in 1978, Ritts decided that he could have turned his passion into a career. However, the big break came for Ritts when a picture he took of Richard Gere got published by Vogue, Mademoiselle and Esquire in 1979. The strength of the picture which depicts Richard Gere as the new American hero lead to many job offers.

Ritts became part of a group of LA photographers who were producing regularly portraits of celebrities and he was chosen very often by them, among other photographers. Ritts said about portrait photography that "it is not the celebrity quality that makes the photograph interesting. It is letting the true person come out that makes the photograph lasting". His preference for outdoor photography, especially the desert and the beach helped him to separate himself from other New York-based peers. The relaxed and anti-glamour style of his celebrities portraits gained him a name and the globalization booming in the 1980s helped him to export it into the world.

By end of the 1908s at around 30 years of age, Ritts expanded his studio and decided that it was not convenient for him to print his own pictures in the camera obscura anymore. He could earn up to 40,000$ per day and he had contracts of 1,000,000$ per year, so his business sense made him decide to hire a bright crew of assistants and printers who could help him in the post processing and other commercial activities. So while the male sexuality was becoming more and more commercially appealing, and both photographers (Bruce Weber for Calvin Klein or Robert Mapplethorpe) and fashion designers where looking for these subjects, Herb Ritts re-interpreted this trend depicting the same subjects in a more artistic and less sexual way, highlighting the beauty of the body lines without revealing too much.

He also used to mix architectural lines with body lines and lights with shades.

Using these techniques and his eye for elegance, Herb Ritts photographed iconic celebrities such as Madonna, Richard Gere, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Prince, Christy Turlington etc..

Ritts also cultivated connections with contemporary painters such as Keith Haring who even created some works using Ritts photos. Ritts was also interested in film-making, considering it part of the same proposition photography has: he directed 13 music videos during his career, of which some got chosen by MTV as the best music video of the year. Some of his music clients were Mariah Cary, Shakira, Michael Jackson while commercially he could count clients such as Cartier, Estée Lauder, Chanel etc..

The life of Ritts continues between further successes across the world and waves of criticism in some countries who did not accept his gay nature and his attention for supporting gay causes. When he was diagnosed HIV, he never stopped working: even when he could not hold the camera easily or focus with his eyes anymore, he always found a way to photograph, often with the help of his crew. On the 26th of Dec 2002 he died, at the young age of 50, due to pneumonia developed during a photography shoot with Ben Affleck for Vanity Fair (March 2003 issue) in one of Herb's favorite locations, the dry lake bed in El Mirage, California.

Oh wow.. what a life guys! I am really impressed to see how some people can achieve so much in such a short lifetime.. These people must be workaholic, obsessed with that they do and un-stoppable.. so let's just get inspired by the determination and talent of Herb Ritts and let's be blessed if we started before his age to work with photography or if we had the luxury of studying photography professionally.

Looking at Herb Ritts photos I must say that ..

1) I am truly impressed by the idea of simplicity that his pictures give me, probably thanks to the harmony he gives to the use of lines and shadows. In fact, Ritts gives a lot of attention to bodies and fabrics' movements, lines and composition etc.. creating an harmonic balance where everything seem to naturally flow together and follow each other.

2) I find the way Ritts uses black & white superb: I don't feel I miss the absence of color (and you guys know how much I love colors!) as it is just incredible how he works with highlights and shadows, bringing the right balance of light and of absence of light in his pictures..

Well, I hope this Sunday's Photography Book Review was as interesting as the previous ones and I hope you learn something new and got inspired to keep on photographing no matter what, and to think about composition and lighting when snapping your next photos. Have fun with photography, be creative, don't give up!

The SPBR (Sunday Photography's Book Review) articles are a review of existing photography books: I make a summary of what the editor writes, highlighting what I consider important and adding my own comments, idea and perceptions. This means that the main idea is extracted by the text included in the books and written by their contributors (all rights reserved).

- All pictures included in this article are from the book and exhibition "L.A. Style" from Herb Ritts. Pictures might be subject to copyrights: all rights are reserved to the author.

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