"I think knowing people by first names, not by what they do sexually, is really what it's about. Not being afraid. Fear is the enemy. I've always been comfortable with being gay."
Herb Ritts is one of my favorite contemporary photographers. Photography is a medium that I have a passion for & Ritts was a master. He was a classicist in the manner of the great George Platt Lynes & George Hurrell, but he could put a contemporary spin on portraiture with none of the settings & color of Annie Lebowitz. I love the work & admire all the artists I have mentioned, along with Helmut Newton & Bruce Weber, but Herb Ritts was a gay man of my generation & his work & subjects speak to me. Interestingly, Ritts was self-taught.
Ritts grew up in Beverly Hills with movie stars as neighbors & as a child his neighbor Steve McQueen would take him on rides on the back of his motorcycle. His images celebrated the beauty of the human body, especially the male body & created stylish, unorthodox portraits of celebrities. Ritts gained the same sort of renown as his subjects & he achieved nearly as much fame as those he photographed.
His work graced not only the covers & photo spreads of such magazines as Vogue, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Elle, & Harper’s Bazaar, but also album covers, advertisements, TV commercials, & music videos. Ritts claimed that his success with B&W photography stemmed from a photograph he happened to take of his friend Richard Gere while they were waiting for a tire to be changed in the California desert. That photo was ultimately used for publicity when Gere starred in American Gigolo (1980) & both men’s careers received an enormous boost.
I own several anthologies of Ritts’s works & even more have been published: Men/Women (1989), Notorious (1992), Africa (1994), Work (1997) & Herb Ritts (2000). Major retrospectives of his work were held in Boston at the Museum of Fine Arts in 1996–97 & in Paris in 2000.
Ritts was always candid about his own sexuality. He realized that he was gay while he was in college. He soon came out to his parents, who were accepting & supportive. In 1993, he appeared on an NBC special- The Gay 90s. After the special aired he received many letters from gay young people about coming out. Ritts claimed that he never set out to be a role model & said- “you get some of these letters & realize how important it is that there be encouragement for young gay people.”
Ritts died in LA from HIV pneumonia-related complications in December 2002. He was only 50 years old. He left behind his longtime partner Erik Hyman, an entertainment lawyer... & his work.
Narrowing down a few pieces of his work is not an easy task. Go to his website: Herb Ritts & spend some time absorbing his unique viewpoint.