Tributes to Herb Ritts, creator of exquisite, iconic photographs

By Charles Arthur
Saturday 28 December 2002 01:00

Herb Ritts, the legendary fashion and celebrity photographer who has died aged 50, left behind a portfolio of subjects whose images will endure even if, as Ritts himself expected, their names do not.

Over a 25-year career, his stylish, often black-and-white portraits established icons for the image-conscious 1980s and 1990s, most famously of supermodels such as Cindy Crawford and actors such as Jack Nicholson. But he also took photographs of political figures including the Dalai Lama, Ronald Reagan and the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan.

"He shot exquisite, iconic photographs," said Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair magazine, to which Ritts contributed dozens of cover shots.

David Fahey, co-owner of the Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles, who was Ritts' exclusive gallery representative, said: "He could get people to do things they were reluctant to do because in the end it would make a great photograph." Etheleen Staley, a partner at the Staley & Wise gallery in New York, added: "The pictures didn't go beyond what the subject would want. That's not to say that the pictures were always straightforward, because they often had a great deal of wit to them."

The actor Richard Gere, whose picture ­ taken before he was a star, in a white vest while smoking at a petrol station ­ helped launch his career, remained a friend of Ritts. Gere said: "He had an extremely elegant aesthetic. Some photographers are working so hard to be elegant that they pummel you with it, but to Herb it came effortlessly. Some photographers embalm their subjects, but he enlivened them."

Ritts was sure that celebrity and names were fleeting, yet was confident that the portraits would endure. "Fifty or sixty years from now, if someone sees a portrait of Madonna, they really won't care that it was Madonna or they won't know who the hell she was," he once said. "But it'll hold up as a portrait of an interesting woman you want to know. You feel her. There's something coming from it."

Ritts was born in Los Angeles in 1952. He got a degree in economics and art history, then worked as a salesman in the family furniture business. Photography began as a hobby. He knew Gere through a friend and in 1979, when the actor was still unknown, did an impromptu photo session at a garage in the desert. A year later American Gigolo made Gere a star and the photos were used as publicity shots.

He published several books of photographs and also took pictures for album covers and directed music videos. In 1991 two of his videos won MTV Awards: best female video, with Janet Jackson, and best male video, with Chris Isaak.

Ritts, who died of complications from pneumonia, is survived by his partner, Erik Hyman, a lawyer.

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