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Herb Ritts: Puttin' on the Ritts


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.'

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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