Herb Ritts’s photographic legacy is based on his transformative portraits of celebrities and his treatment of the human form. He is remembered as one of the leading fashion photographers of the 1980s and 90s. Ritts’s fresh perspective modernized the nude in photography, celebrating the human form with its almost emblematic, godlike depiction of beauty. He helped transform fashion photography through his fluid treatment of gender and race, presenting a strong current of sensuality and sexual magnetism that brought his captivating work into the foreground of American visual culture. Inspired by photographers before him, such as Horst P. Horst and Irving Penn, Ritts used his understanding of classical aesthetics, along with his desire for new and creative images, to create unforgettable photographs that immortalized his generation, and left his mark as one of the most highly collected photographers in the world.
Emerging from California, an unconventional region for a world-class photographer at the time, Herb Ritts galvanized the sun-soaked landscape of the west coast to become a backdrop for American photography in pop culture. While influential American photographs predominantly came from Horst P. Horst, Richard Avedon, and Irving Penn in the creative hub of New York, Ritts generated a distinct style that brought his subjects to the outdoors. Engaging with the elements, his preferred backdrops were the vast desert, the beach, and a “golden hour” of sunlight, between the hours of three and six before sundown. Ritts’s best photographs combined an intimacy with a classical approach to the figure to produce a contemporary feel. Beach washed models with carefree poise or powerful male figures that appear as bronze demigods are all framed within compositions that accent the beauty of their bodies. He imbued his photoshoots with a sense of freedom, allowing for his subjects to be at ease and engage in a collaborative spontaneity and anti-glamourized intimacy that brought the individual’s spirit through his pictures.
Carré in Sand, 1988 exemplifies his elegant and alluring aesthetic. The cropped torso of the model is pictured lying sensually on a bed of sand. Her figure displays the proportion and sculptural form of a Greco-Roman statue. The photograph references some of Edward Weston’s best-known studies of nudes in the sand as well as highlighting the smooth skin of the subject merging seamlessly with the grainy textured sand. Ritts achieves these subtle modulations of tonality through the platinum print’s richness and silkiness (which allow for a superb tonal range throughout the composition.) Herb Ritts’s characteristic style is in full display here, consisting of natural light, a sense of spontaneity, and the backdrop of an elemental place. Ritts crops the photograph to present only the torso, expressing a sense of anonymity with the subject, concentrating more on the form and tactile properties of this model than her identity.
“I had a very profound sense with Herb that he truly loved and honored women and bodies. And not all men, gay or straight, have that experience toward the feminine. With Herb, he reenacted an archetype of the goddess, and you felt that on the set. Even though he may have been asking you to pose in front of a volcano that was about to explode—and more often than not, completely naked! —There was a safety with Herb. The way he saw the human body, and the elements that he chose—whether it was contrasts of black and white, or a stone he had you photograph with, or grains of sand stuck to your face—it all coalesced to create unbelievably profound images, and I think profound out of the simplicity of what he saw, and what he wanted to show his audience… He shot in celebration of the diversity of the female form and represented the divine aspects of the feminine.” – model Carré Otis on Herb Ritts
Later in his career, Herb Ritts becomes part of the first generation of photographers who directed music videos and commercials, further instilling his iconic vision to an even greater audience. Herb Ritts created timeless photographs that were often bold, original, and energetic but also showed an intimacy and vulnerability. Herb Ritts’s photography blurred the lines between commercial work and fine art. He was extraordinarily creative and had a fully developed aesthetic range that shone through all of his pictures. He was literally a beacon of light to both photographers and collectors. His fame has continued to grow since his demise in 2002. If he is remembered for any concept, it is his willingness to manifest a continual search for beauty.