Herb Ritts: Puttin' on the Ritts

9.23.2010

By Ray Rogers

She left said shoot swearing she'd never do another -- until she saw the results. Ritts went on to photograph the icon numerous times and made the video for her blockbuster song 'Cherish.' He also directed game-changing videos for Janet Jackson and Chris Isaak, bringing his rich, sensual, monochromatic work to life on screen. In the process, Ritts became a celebrity himself. 'You were working with an icon when you were working with Herb,' Helena Christensen recalls in the book.
Perhaps it was destiny that Ritts went on to be the star image-maker. He grew up in Brentwood, with Steve McQueen as a neighbor. 'He was raised in the center of the Hollywood scene and felt comfortable with it,' says Churchward of the bespectacled photographer's California charm. 'How else could he talk Steve McQueen into being the king of his school prom?'

'His humor and relationship to Hollywood glamour was never camp, but he loved it and understood it and used it,' says Churchward. Certainly, Ritts's sense of self as a gay man shone through in his work, be it pushing the envelope with the iconic VF cover of Cindy Crawford shaving k.d. lang or exulting the male physique in the classical Greek-inspired works of his nudes.

Entranced by the physical form, his lens turned Marky Mark into a homoerotic fantasy in his Calvins, and a greased-up model in the portrait Fred With Tires remains one of his most enduring images. He devoted an entire book to the thunderous musculature of bodybuilders Bob Paris and Rod Jackson in Duo.

Meanwhile, his own body was at war with itself, as he sought out alternative herbal treatments for his HIV infection. While the initial announcement of Ritts's cause of death made no mention of AIDS, raising the ire of activists at the time, his friends and family candidly discuss his struggles with the disease in the book.

In the book, Gere says that when Ritts became positive, 'He just went into overdrive. I don't know if it was a sense of, 'If I've got something to do, I've gotta do it now and leave it as my legacy.' Or if it was, 'I'm going to keep working so I don't think about this.''

Those closest to him say it was not out of shame that he kept his status secret while alive, but out of concern that his mother not be burdened with worry for his health and that he would in fact have wanted the public at large to know after his death. 'Before he passed, he wrote in his will that one of the goals of his namesake foundation would be to help raise money for the cure of AIDS, as well as for photography,' notes Churchward. 'My book is about a moment in time and to clear up a few of the myths, I hope. I am not preaching here, and neither was he. Herb worked in visuals, and that's what he really left us.'

As astounding as many of those visuals are, his fans and former editors continue to wonder how his work would have evolved had he survived. 'Looking back, he was someone who was really underestimated,' says Vogue's Wintour in the book. 'He was a really strong photographer and beyond a fashion photographer. It's so sad that he didn't live to the age he should've because I think he was, in lots of ways, just getting started.'

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