Herb Ritts was a celebrity photographer in both senses of the term: a photographer of celebrities and, rarer still, a photographer who became a celebrity.
His status was built upon his shots of fashion models and entertainment icons in stark black and white — a style later replicated as he moved into directing music videos and television commercials.
“He really evolved as mass media evolved,” said Jennifer Klos, associate curator at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, which currently hosts an exhibition of Ritts’ photographs. “In magazines and TV and MTV, he ended up embodying the ’80s and ’90s. His images permeated into American culture.”
One in particular became the cover of Madonna’s 1986 True Blue album — that and 79 others make up Herb Ritts: Beauty and Celebrity, on display through July 28. With material from the late 1970s to 2002, the exhibition examines the depth of his career. Despite the range, Klos said Ritts, who died in 2002, maintained a consistent look.
“He was a master of light,” she said, noting that Ritts was self-taught. “He had an innate eye for composition.”
Visitors to the exhibition will see no shortage of famous faces, from musicians (David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Aretha Franklin) and actors (Jack Nicholson, Jodie Foster, Johnny Depp) to athletes (Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson) and politicians (Nelson Mandela, Ronald and Nancy Reagan).
And then, of course, there are the supermodels — Cindy Crawford, Stephanie Seymour, Christy Turlington and more — in whose rise Ritts played a valuable role, Klos said.
“He revolutionized how the human body [was photographed],” she said. “He captured the essence of who that person is, but in an intimate way.” —Rod Lott