Herb Ritts: Puttin' on the Ritts


By Ray Rogers

Imagine showing up to direct your first cover shoot for Vanity Fair with Herb Ritts. The subject? Madonna. The setting? Rain's pissing down and the clock is ticking. 'I arrived soaking wet with a few shopping bags of extra accessories the stylist needed,' recalls design and art director Charles Churchward in his new oral history on the photographer, Herb Ritts: The Golden Hour (out in October from Rizzoli). 'I must've looked like a messenger when I climbed up the stairs, but the doors flew open, and three people walked out arm in arm, seemingly to greet me. It was Herb, Madonna -- in new short blonde hair -- and Richard Gere, who Herb had invited over to be a diversion until the shoot got going. I realized I was in a different world now: Herb's world.'

Fans get a bird's eye view of that rarefied world -- an era which k.d. lang likens to 'a convergence of pop and art [with Ritts] right in the crux of it' -- in Churchward's impressive tome, which draws on interviews with more than 100 friends, lovers, colleagues, and collaborators over a five-year span. The book is as star-studded as one would expect for a man who helped usher in a new era of Hollywood glamour in the '80s, with commentary from magazine royalty like Anna Wintour, movie stars like Gere (who contributes the introduction), pop icons such as Madonna, and supermodels like Helena Christensen (who starred in Ritts's iconic video for Chris Isaak's 'Wicked Game').

While plenty of ink is given to Ritts's childhood and relationship with his domineering mother, Shirley, The Golden Hour sheds new light on the photographic legend whose life ended prematurely at age 50, on December 26, 2002, after a sandstorm on location for a Ben Affleck Vanity Fair cover shoot fatally derailed his already compromised immune system. Ritts, who had been HIV positive for 13 years, a fact he kept hidden from the public and from his own mother, died of pneumonia within days of the shoot.

In his highly stylized celebrity portraiture, Ritts achieved a careful balance of glamorizing and humanizing his subjects within the same shot. He lived his life like that as well, making everyone on his sets as comfortable as the star subjects, says Churchward, who worked closely with Ritts over the course of 20 years, at Vanity Fair and later at Vogue. 'He'd talk to everybody -- the messenger, the caterer -- with the same ease and welcome, and, believe me, that is not always the case on shoots of this magnitude.'

In his early work, Ritts followed in the footsteps of Bruce Weber, but soon developed his own photographic iconography, drawing heavily on his Hollywood environs and that golden California sunlight alluded to in the book's title. Madonna describes the experience of being 'Herbified,' as she calls it. 'What does it mean to be Herbified?' she asks in the book. 'He talks you into going to the beach. Then, he talks you into taking off your clothes. He talks you into dancing and frolicking in the sand like an idiot. He talks you into getting into the freezing cold ocean, and before you know it, you have sunburn and you're freezing your ass off and you're sure you've just made a huge fool out of yourself.'

Tags: Art & Books