Herb Ritts’s Revolutionary Fashion Photography

Herb Ritts was one of the most important fashion photographers of the 1980s and 1990s. His pictures redrew the boundaries of fashion imagery and reconsidered the nude in photography. Characterised by intimacy as well as 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 of both beauty and of photography.

Ritts’s photographs embody the outdoors lifestyle and glamour of his native southern California. His work is elemental and warm, often placing models close to nature, against sand or sea. Ritts used clothes as graphic elements within compositions that celebrated the body first and foremost. This approach is exemplified in this particular image in which a woman’s figure is dramatized by the unusual and graphic styling of a sleek black dress. This photograph, El Mirage, was originally created as part of an advertising campaign for Versace, featuring the supermodel Christy Turlington, appearing on the cover of Versace’s September 1990s catalogue and subsequently becoming one of Ritts’ most important fashion shots.

The image was taken at El Mirage dry lakebed in California, and is characteristic of Ritts’ heady, sun-soaked oeuvre, and its utilisation of the crisp, clear Californian light. The image features further hallmark elements of his work, including a simple background and high contrast between light and dark. The image incorporates a striking formalism in its sculptural treatment of the Versace dress, and the shadows cast across the model’s body. The combination of Turlington’s sculptured silhouette with the exclusion of limbs and slicked back hair produces a bold, reductive abstraction. Her figure is then further elevated by the stark black of the silk dress that encircles her. This framing device adds a further level of theatricality and elegance to the composition.

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