The 1980s: The Age of Prosperity, Liberty and Madonna

For America, the 1980s was an age of seductive opulence. With the momentum of growing wealth and increased material freedoms spurred by Wall St, the politics of Reaganomics, and popular culture, the 80s were characterized in the US as a decade of prosperity and liberty. Additionally, popular music acts influenced style and music worldwide, driven by the increased use of cable TV throughout American homes.

Moreover, the superstar singer who earned her title as the Queen of Pop, Madonna, broadcasted her highly artistic music videos on the burgeoning MTV network. The singer’s provocative persona and MTV’s increased viewership helped usher in a new era. One of sexual liberation, female independence, and a more risqué entertainment. With a name that recalled the sanctity of religion, a musical act that pushed the boundaries of tolerance, and an image shaped through the help of elite photographers and music directors, Madonna became a global sensation and fashion icon who changed the landscape of the music industry forever.

Herb Ritts

Through a fresh, dramatic style and images that displayed immediate, sensual energy, Herb Ritts became one of the leading photographers to emerge during the 1980s. Certainly, Ritts’s skill at portraiture, creative approach to fashion, and contemporary treatment of the classical nude won him international acclaim. This led to a highly productive career in photography. His unique aesthetic became a characteristic style that embodied a fresh outdoor life of leisure in Southern California.

This aesthetic differentiated him from his East Coast peers still predominantly doing studio work. Ritts made use of the bright California sunlight during his shoots with what he called the “golden hour,” a brief period of light just before dusk that produces bold contrasts by casting solid shadows. In this environment, he celebrated the various shapes and textures of the human form. Ritts’s artistic eye was drawn to pure, clean lines and strong, simple shapes. Most importantly, he presented elegant compositions that emphasized balance and the order of classical style.

From Photography to Video

Consistently productive, Ritts additionally directed 13 music videos and more than 50 commercials throughout his career. Similarly, his video explorations of the idealized human figure is a recurring theme. He had a passion for photographing actors, musicians, and cultural icons. A frequent collaborator was the superstar, Madonna.

“For me, a portrait is something from which you feel the person, their inner quality, what it is that makes them who they are.” – Herb Ritts

Herb Ritts, Madonna, True Blue, Hollywood, 1986
Herb Ritts, Madonna, True Blue, Hollywood, 1986, Silver Gelatin Photograph

True Blue

In 1986, Herb Ritts captured Madonna’s cover photo for her True Blue album. As her fame grew after her first few records, True Blue cast a wider net with American audiences. Moreover, she included classical music and human themes that delved deeper into love, career, and disillusionment, than her previous work. Herb Ritt’s sultry cover and unique style helped transform Madonna’s image from a loveable and flirty ingénue to a seductive, powerful woman in control of her destiny.

“With this picture, Madonna made explicit the connection between Warhol and herself, the vivid nexus between pop art and commerce. The late 1980s marked a new era of the pop artist as a brand, and Madonna became the first one to exploit this.” – Lucy O’Brien, Madonna: Like an Icon.

Herb Ritts at His Best

With the True Blue portrait, Herb Ritts is at his best. Above all, his vision created an image with a sense of freedom and freshness. The composition and proximity to the subject builds the image’s texture. For example, the image interplays Madonna’s smooth, radiant skin with the waves of stylized blonde hair, the ruggedness of the leather jacket, and the faint thin necklace draping from her shoulders. In the image, Madonna’s leatherwear and short hair, along with her sculptural fashion pose, juxtapose strength and vulnerability, akin to Marilyn Monroe’s enigmatic allure.

Continuing with a comparison akin to Marilyn Monroe as a subject, in Bert Stern‘s Last Sitting pictures, the viewer is captivated with her toughness and vulnerability – the superstar qualities of Marilyn. Hence, she fascinates us, but maintains a kind of unknowable mystery. The same can be said about Herb Ritts’s Madonna, True Blue. With the combination of her hair, porcelain skin, and biker jacket, we sense vigor, tenderness, and sensuality. Therefore, she is both strangely present and inscrutable. Ritt’s juxtaposition of these visual contradictions gives the photograph its power and lasting allure.