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Fashion Photography: New Exhibition of Photographer Herb Ritts

A new exhibition of Herb Ritts’ iconic commercial work proves that fashion photography isn’t just posing as fine art.

Herb Ritts, Versace Dress, Back View, El Mirage, 1990

Herb Ritts, Versace Dress, Back View, El Mirage, 1990

This article originally appeared in the April issue of Art & Antiques Magazine as “Ready for His Close-Up”.

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You can argue whether Herb Ritts’ Stephanie, Cindy, Christy, Naomi, Tatjana, Hollywood (1989) belongs in a leading American museum, but there’s little point to the exercise—the black-and-white photograph that captures a quintet of nude supermodels has already graced the walls of two. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston showcased the picture in the notorious and successful 1996 exhibition Herb Ritts: Work, and the image appears at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center in Los Angeles in Herb Ritts: L.A. Style, which opens there this month. The Getty is the second major U.S. museum to devote a solo show to Ritts, a Los Angeles native who shot album covers for Madonna, celebrity portraits for Vanity Fair, fashion layouts, music videos, commercials, and sensitive depictions of tribal Africans before he died in 2002 at the age of 50. But it makes explicit an idea that was implicit in the Boston show, and implicit in Ritts’ short but spectacular career: The line that separates fine-art photography and commercial art photography is not just irrelevant, it’s an illusion.

Ritts’ nudes, fashion photographs and celebrity portraits receive attention in the exhibit at the Getty, but curator Paul Martineau acknowledges that some images suit more than one category. Stephanie… technically fits all three, but Martineau placed it among the nudes. It’s one of Ritts’s most famous photographs, occupying the first through fourth places in his top 10 best sellers at auction. He took it in 1989, before the peak of the supermodel era, and it gathers many of the women who dominated it: Stephanie Seymour, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell and Tatjana Patitz. The picture is a good representative of Ritts’ work in that it looks almost effortlessly beautiful and doesn’t hint at the toil and finesse required to produce it.

Martineau notes that Ritts included in the composition of Stephanie… a subtle reference to one of his photographic forbears: The twined limbs of Tatjana and Naomi recall the pose of a 1936 Edward Weston nude of Charis Wilson. “This is one of the great things that Herb was able to do,” says Martineau. “He had an amazing visual memory, and he was able to incorporate influences of people he respected into his work without making it seem like he was copying. To be able to do that and create a style that is distinctly one’s own is extraordinary.”

The starkest statement in the Getty Ritts show comes in a section that Martineau packed with images of athletes and dancers and dubbed “Art and Commerce.” “I talk about the history of the bias against commercial photography,” he says, “and the people who came before him who address that, and how Ritts didn’t make a distinction between the two things—he approached all his work with the same level of intelligence and creativity. I pose a question and ask people if they can tell the difference between the photographs that were created for his personal projects or for commercial commissioned work.”

While Martineau asks the question in the context of the “Art and Commerce” display, he says it can apply to the entire show. Stephanie… is a case in point. Ritts had been assigned to shoot four models for a May 1989 Rolling Stone swimwear story. One of them—it’s unclear who—mentioned that Christy Turlington was in L.A. that day, and maybe they should call her and ask if she could join them. Turlington said yes, and Ritts arranged the five and fired away. So, not only did he possess the ability to make the world’s leading supermodels comfortable enough to strip naked, cram themselves into the narrow patio hallway of his Hollywood home, relax, and hug each other like sisters rather than the rivals they were—they liked him enough to tell him that another rival happened to be in town and suggest that he include her in the frame, too.

Herb Ritts: L.A. Style is only the latest example of how the fine art photography–commercial art photography divide is fading. Fashion photography, a category of images that is inherently commercial, is gaining respect from curators, dealers and collectors. At a Christie’s Paris sale in November 2010, an oversize print of Richard Avedon’s 1955 classic Dovima with Elephants became the first fashion photograph to break the million-dollar mark at auction, and last year, the Gagosian gallery—the global behemoth whose stable includes contemporary superstars Damien Hirst, Richard Prince, Ed Ruscha, and Takashi Murakami, to name a few—began representing the Avedon estate. (It had previously been with the venerable Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco, a photography specialist.) Last year, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston hosted a show based on three books by the late fashion photographer Helmut Newton: White Women, Sleepless Nights, and Big Nudes. British photographer Cecil Beaton, who captured the fashions and faces of the early to mid-20th century, was honored with an exhibit at The Museum of the City of New-York that closed in February. London’s Victoria & Albert Museum intends to mount a Horst P. Horst show after 2013.

Rising interest in fashion photography has brought fresh attention to artists who otherwise might have remained obscure. The death of Harper’s Bazaar stalwart Lillian Bassman at age 94 on February 13 might not have made as many headlines if the hundred-odd 1950s-era black and white negatives that she ruefully tucked into garbage bags and hid in her Manhattan home had lain undiscovered. Fashion photography historian Martin Harrison visited her in the early 1990s and located the stash, an act that snowballed into a late-in-life career revival for Bassman. She accepted commissions from the New York Times and German Vogue and embarked on what she called “reinterpretations” of her vintage photographs, working closely with a darkroom technician to release a total of 100 of her pictures in editions of 25.

The discovery also led her to Peter Fetterman, a Santa Monica, Calif., gallery owner who offers Cartier-Bresson, Horst, and Hoyningen-Huene and who fell under the spell of the Bassmans shown in Harrison’s 1991 book, Appearances: Fashion Photography Since 1945. “I saw her images and was totally seduced by her—her as a person and her work,” says Fetterman. He was readying a new Bassman show that emphasized lingerie when he received word of her passing. While he says he might change the name of the show, he does not expect to alter its content.

Like Bassman, Ritts was heavily involved with the production of his limited editions, which number more than 500 and were typically issued in series of 25 plus three artist’s proofs. Though half his lifetime output is in color, anyone who attends the Getty exhibit, views the catalogue of the MFA show, or visits the galleries that offer him will encounter only black-and-white images. Ritts was an ardent photography collector who cared deeply about the quality of prints of his work, and chose to stick to black and white out of dissatisfaction with the available color processing techniques. After he died, his foundation decided it would not issue posthumous editions and thereby ensured that his color images would never appear for sale.

Ritts began his professional career in the late 1970s. Like many of his predecessors, he was self-taught, but for him, the divide between commercial art and fine art simply didn’t exist. His ability to stride forward, indifferent to a debate that had simmered for decades, owes much to when, where, and how he grew up. Ritts was the son of a prosperous and privileged Los Angeles family who lived next door to actor Steve McQueen at the height of his fame. Ritts somehow achieved the near-miraculous feat of living at the epicenter of the film industry and working with its hottest stars without turning catty or cynical.

“In all my years with him, I never heard him even once whisper something that could be considered negative or cross. He was a complete optimist,” says Mark McKenna, who joined Ritts as a photographic assistant in 1989, stayed with Ritts until the AIDS-weakened artist succumbed to complications of pneumonia, and now leads the Herb Ritts Foundation. “No matter what he was doing, he liked to find this glint of beauty in everything he saw.”

His relentless embrace of beauty provides fodder for his critics, who relished picking apart the MFA show. After dismissing Herb Ritts: Work as “a collection of beautiful faces and perfect figures flaunting themselves,” and Ritts’ oeuvre as “all fun, all style and little substance, slick and seductive,” in her October 1996 Boston Globe review, Christine Temin couldn’t resist returning two months later, once the show was a confirmed blockbuster, to pen a disapproving article titled The Malling of the MFA.

MFA director Malcolm Rogers, for his part, has no regrets. “Wherever I go, people come up to me at parties and thank me for two things,” he says. “One is opening the Huntington Avenue entrance of the museum [which had been closed due to budget cuts], and the other is the Herb Ritts exhibition. They were both very festive, welcoming things to do in totally different ways—open the doors, and open people’s perceptions to a world of photography that previously perhaps hadn’t been featured in museums, but which was delightful.” The final attendance number exceeded 250,000.

Martineau shouldn’t face anything like the opprobrium that Rogers did, and not just because he’s shrewdly paired the Getty’s Ritts exhibit with Portraits of Renown: Photography and the Cult of Celebrity, a historic centuries-spanning survey of celebrity portraiture that draws on the museum’s archives and starts and ends on the same days as Herb Ritts: L.A. Style. Things really have changed in the last decade and a half. In 2011, Edwynn Houk Gallery became the New York representative of the Ritts estate and marked the acquisition with a retrospective of the photographer’s work. College age admirers of the MFA exhibition were prosperous young collectors by the time of the Houk show and helped make it one of the gallery’s top 10 best-sellers by volume.

Houk avers that prior to 2011, he might not have admitted Ritts to his stable. “For a long time, there’s been prejudice against work done on commission. It extended to reportage, fashion, and portraits. Over time, it has broken down,” he says, adding, “There’s been obviously more respect for people who have done creative work for the printed page. Collectors and museums respond more nowadays.”

He credits contemporary artists such as Cindy Sherman, who relies on photography, for speeding the erosion of the barrier. The first photograph to break the million-dollar threshold at auction was Richard Prince’s 1989 image Untitled (Cowboy), which fetched $1.2 million at Christie’s New York in November 2005. Since then, Prince, Andreas Gursky, and Sherman have all set fresh benchmarks for photographs at auction. Gursky’s Rhein II sold for $4.3 million last November at Christie’s New York, snatching “most expensive photograph at auction” honors from Sherman’s Untitled #96 from 1981, which had earned $3.9 million at the same venue six months earlier. Prince’s Untitled (Cowboy) now ranks 11th on the all-time most expensive photographs at auction list, just ahead of Avedon’s Dovima. “It’s ironic, really,” says Houk, “that there was this great historical body of fashion photography that was not universally accepted until contemporary artists started changing the perception of what photographers were.”

Though celebrity portraits comprise only part of Ritts’s work, the media often reduces him to that particular aspect. In its initial Internet breaking news piece on the Herb Ritts Foundation’s 2007 gift of $2.5 million to the MFA for a photography gallery that would bear Ritts’s name, the Boston Globe staffer still called him a “celebrity photographer.” Moreover, Ritts is hardly the first prominent photographer to shoot A-List Hollywood stars for Vanity Fair. No less a photographic god than Edward Steichen accepted commissions from Condé Nast. His iconic 1924 portrait of the actress Gloria Swanson veiled in black lace appears in the Getty’s Portraits of Renown exhibit. Steichen is also credited with doing the first significant fashion shoot in 1911, when the French magazine Art et Décoration asked him to showcase dresses by the designer Paul Poiret. (Sadly, neither negatives nor high-quality prints survive.) Incidentally, Steichen holds fourth place on the ‘most expensive’ list, earned when his 1904 image, The Pond-Moonlight sold for $2.9 million at Sotheby’s New York in February 2006, making it the record-holder at that time.

David Fahey, of the Fahey/Klein gallery in Los Angeles (which, in addition to Ritts, handles photographs by Avedon, Horst, Irving Penn, George Hoyningen-Huene, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Man Ray, Bruce Weber, and Helmut Newton), had the unique pleasure of meeting Ritts as a photograph collector in the late 1970s before hanging his black-and-whites on the gallery walls in the mid-1980s. “Ritts was a master of capturing people in their pop culture moment,” Fahey says. “He didn’t just take pictures of Madonna, he took the picture of Madonna. If you think of Madonna, you think of that True Blue cover.”

There will always be some who insist on dismissing Ritts as fluff. But as time passes, it becomes clearer that Ritts had a talent that few can match: His best images please the eye without sliding out of the mind. “The proof is in the fact that there are so many pictures that Herb did that are impossible to forget,” says Martineau. “You see Versace Dress, Back View, El Mirage and you will never forget that picture. It’s so fantastic.”

Author: Sheila Gibson Stoodley | Publish Date: April 2012

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