Born August 13, 1952 to a wealthy Los Angeles family, Herbert Ritts pursued his dreams of professional photography, rather than go into the family business at the Ritts Furniture Company.
He graduated from Bard College in New York with a degree in economics and history before returning to dabble as a sales representative at his father’s firm. His clients included film studios that needed furniture for their sets.
Having loved photography his entire life, Ritts decided to enroll in night classes and then pursue photography professionally during the late 1970s.
Herb Ritts and Richard Gere: Ritts’ Big Break
In 1978, a friend of Ritts got him onto the set of Franco Zeffirelli’s The Champ. During a break between scenes, he convinced the young Ricky Shroeder and Jon Voigt, the two stars of the film, to pose for a picture together. Newsweek published it, beginning Ritts’ professional career.
However, his big break came through his friend Richard Gere, who then worked mainly in theater before breaking into film. One day, the two of them, along with their friend Penny Milford, took a drive through the desert, and the car got a flat. Ritts snapped some pictures of Gere changing the tire. One shot portrays Gere in a white vest with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, taking a break from the work.
This image launched both men’s careers. Gere’s press agent loved the photo and showed it around, causing Gere to be cast in his first major role in American Gigolo. Once Gere became famous, Herb Ritts’ photos became well-known publicity shots, launching his own career as “photographer to the stars.”
Herb Ritts and The Music World
Herb Ritts’ his first album cover (1981) was Olivia Newton-John’s Physical. Then, in 1984, Ritts photographed Madonna, marking another major turning point in his career, in an ad for her new movie, Desperately Seeking Susan. Meeting Madonna in this shoot paved the way for him to photograph her next album cover, True Blue (1986).
At Madonna’s suggestion, Ritts tried his hand at directing music videos, beginning with her song “Cherish” in 1989. By 1991, he won MTV Video Music Awards for Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” and Janet Jackson’s “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” videos. He also achieved fame in later years directing Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, Shakira and Jennifer Lopez.
Ritts’ Other Work: Fashion, Portraits and Nudes
Herb Ritts’ world-famous celebrity have been published in magazines across the globe. He became known for his unique style and sometimes playful images, such as Jack Nicholson’s “Joker” series or his image solely of Sandra Bernhard’s open mouth.
During the 1980s, Ritts did fashion shoots for Donna Karan, the Gap, Armani and Versace, among others. His sensual male moody images for Calvin Klein captured the public’s imagination. He received an “Infinity Award for Applied Photography” from the International Center for Photography in New York for the portraits he shot for The Gap. His work has appeared in several of the top magazines, including Vogue, Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair.
His focus on black and white photography evokes the style of classic Greek sculpture, especially his work depicting only his subject’s torsos. His nudes show healthy, appealing bodies, reminiscent of the German body culture movement.
Herb Ritts and Africa
A marked departure from his earlier work occurred in 1994 when Ritts published his book Africa. He had traveled to East Africa in 1993 and photographed the Maasai people, animals and the stunning landscape. Some of his best-known images from this work include “Hands Joined,” “Loriki with Spear” and “Maasai Woman and Child.”
Herb Ritts’ Legacy
Tragically, Ritts died from pneumonia complications on December 26, 2002 at the age of 50. However, his unique portrait style, renowned for adding a tactile look to photographs, has forever affected photography. His celebrity work and even his fashion shoots have loyal followings of fans.
Photo District News listed Herb Ritts as one of the 20 most influential photographs of the period 1980-2000, citing his detailed textures, the simple beauty of his work and the tight framing style for which he was known.
In his short life, Ritts accomplished an extraordinary amount. His work will influence others for years to come.
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