Herb Ritts was one of the most important fashion photographers of the 1980s and 1990s. His pictures redrew the boundaries of fashion imagery, rethought the nude in photography and helped to transform celebrities into icons. Characterised by strong forms and clean lines, his photographs have a simplicity that is instantly appealing and yet belies the significant way in which they sought to challenge conventional notions.
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Ritts was born in Los Angeles on 13 August 1952 to Jewish parents, Herb Sr., a business man, and Shirley, an interior designer. Although he began his career working for the family’s furniture business, Ritts decided to move to the East Coast to attend Bard College in New York, where he majored in Art History and Economics. He later returned to Los Angeles, however, and as a photographer it was in fact his use of the bright Californian sunlight to create contrast and his love of outdoor locations for shots that stood him apart from many of his East Coast based counterparts.
Ritts’s interest in photography was first piqued when he and friend Richard Gere, then an aspiring actor, decided to shoot some pictures in front of an old Buick. The photographs got some coverage and encouraged Ritts to think more seriously about the medium. His career started to develop in earnest in the late 1970s and he soon gained a reputation as a master of both art and commercial photography. Portrait and editorial fashion work followed for publications including Vogue, Vanity Fair, Interview and Rolling Stone. He also created advertising campaigns for such high profile brands as Calvin Klein, Chanel, Giorgio Armani and Polo Ralph Lauren. As early as 1981 he had photographed Brooke Shields for the October cover of Elle magazine and also taken the shots for Olivia Newton-John’s Physical album of the same year.
From 1988, he began to direct music videos and commercials, winning two MTV Video Awards in 1991 for his work on videos of singles by Janet Jackson and Chris Isaak. Other directorial roles included for music by Michael Jackson, Madonna and Mariah Carey. Among the many celebrated names that his career as a still photographer encompassed were Diana Ross, Christopher Reeve, Cindy Crawford, Julia Roberts, Jack Nicholson, Elton John, Stephen Hawking, Ronald Regan and Elizabeth Taylor. Ritts’s work is held in many important private and public collections worldwide and in 2012 was the subject of a retrospective exhibition at the Getty Center, Los Angeles.
Ritts was a committed supporter of AIDS and HIV charitable causes, contributing to many organisations throughout his life, and was a charter member of the Board of Directors of the Elton John AIDs Foundation. He died from AIDS related complications on 26 December 2002.