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Hot Shots : Top Photographers Rival Star Clients in Celebrity Status

March 31, 1989|BETH ANN KRIER | Times Staff Writer

Dancing in black spike heels and a sheer chiffon dress, Kim Basinger wants the music changed.

She's purring.

She's writhing.

She's rubbing her back against a chalk-white backdrop like a silky cat on this breezy, Hollywood rooftop.

And she's heard enough of chart-topper Bobby Brown.

"Put on 'Bad,' the Michael Jackson tape," urges the sultry star of "9 1/2 Weeks," "Blind Date" and the forthcoming "Batman" with Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton.

"Beautiful! Go! Wow! That's great!" photographer Herb Ritts encourages Basinger, firing staccato shots so fast his finger is glued to the camera's shutter release.

"That's nice with the tension on your legs like that. . . . Look at me right here. . . . Turn to this side. It's better . . . so I see your leg."

Here, on the rooftop of Ritts' studio, seven people are working this shoot, including a magazine art director, style editor, hairdresser, makeup artist and various assistants. But only Ritts seems to notice that Basinger is displeased with the music--she's requested the Jackson tape twice--and he calmly directs an assistant to make the change.

Few details escape the eyes (or ears) of Ritts, the internationally acclaimed photographer who's become as big a star as many of the personalities he captures on film.

Though best known for his cover portraits for such magazines as Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Interview, GQ and Vogue, Ritts is also celebrated for his work in slick fashion magazines from Italy to Japan, for his art prints and nudes exhibited in galleries worldwide and for his well-received coffee table book of last year, "Herb Ritts Pictures."

He even had a billboard on Santa Monica Boulevard celebrating the book last year.

In the opinion of many observers, including some of his competitors, Ritts, 37, is simply the hottest photographer around, one of a very slim group of image-makers who've achieved star status in their own right.

Says his friend Matthew Rolston, a newer but fast-rising member of this select group: "This is Herb's moment."

How do photographers make the leap from being solid magazine photographers to being relentlessly sought after by stars and editors alike? What makes a particular photographic vision desirable for setting the tone on everything from record album covers to movie billboards to magazine covers?

And why are Los Angeles-based photographers Ritts and Rolston--along with such well-known photographers as Annie Leibovitz, Helmut Newton and Bruce Weber--suddenly finding themselves at the front of the pack, while other extremely gifted individuals have yet to make the cut?

"It's a change in perception," suggests Derek Ungless, art director at Vogue and formerly art director of Rolling Stone.

"Being hot, which is a particularly '80s phenomenon, seems to account for more than being good sometimes, but in the case of Annie and Herb and some others it's not the case. They work for certain types of people, certain magazines. They produce talked-about images. There's a point where it dawns on the stars themselves that if these photographers' pictures are talked about, by inference, they get talked about."

Ungless also cites an obvious but sometimes overlooked factor: Star photographers "make people look good. They make them look extraordinary. And once they start to be hot, they get hotter."

So how do you get hot?

"I've never really figured it out. It's not the pictures. It has to be personality," says Temple Smith, picture editor of Esquire, referring to the fact that a number of celebrity portrait specialists produce exceptional photographs but they're not considered to be heating up the inside track.

"Matthew (Rolston) and Herb (Ritts) are in a class of their own. Matthew's a fabulous photographer and so's Herb and so are other photographers but they don't get the access (to celebrities). When I call Mr. or Ms. Celebrity and ask them to shoot with somebody, they often have an opinion. Oftentimes, the celebrity will tell me who they want to shoot with, though we much prefer to shape a book according to our own interests," she adds.

But what accounts for celebrities requesting or even demanding to work with Ritts, Rolston or another "name?"

Actor Richard Gere, a friend who unwittingly helped launch Ritts' career in the late '70s by posing for just-for-fun shots that later appeared worldwide, says he can't speak for others. But Gere likes the way Ritts "gets it done quick and I always recognize the person in the photograph. . . ."

Ritts' style is simple though mysterious and dramatic, often using natural-light shadows, stark backgrounds and the strength of a subject's character to carry the photo. Says Gere: "Herb doesn't impose some sort of exterior personality on the photograph. . . . I think in the end, the subjects really recognize themselves in the shots. . . . Once you've worked with Herb, you know you won't get burned."

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