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Eye Of The Beholder

How L.A. Photographer Herb Ritts Finds Beauty in Greasy Garages, Burmese Pythons and Monica Lewinsky

October 29, 2000|BILL SHARPSTEEN | Bill Sharpsteen's last story for the magazine was on female dockworkers

WE ARE SUPPOSED TO BELIEVE THAT HERB RITTS BEGAN his photographic career with a camera. There's this story repeated a thousand times by Ritts and his friends about how he and his buddy Richard Gere, then an actor with a short portfolio, went for a ride in the California desert in 1978. A tire blew somewhere near San Bernardino. To kill time while in a local garage getting the car fixed, Ritts started shooting Gere with a cheapie Miranda 35mm camera that he had bought for a vacation.

In his white tank top, with long hair and cigarette dangling, Gere could have been an insolent mechanic stopping to yawn. "It was just fooling around," Gere says, claiming not to remember much about the day. "It wasn't for anyone but us."

A few months later, with three film roles quickly making him famous, Gere's publicist asked for the pictures. Ritts sent her the garage photos, and just to show what a helpful neophyte he was, he even enclosed the negatives. The pictures appeared in several magazines throughout Europe and the U.S., including Mademoiselle, Vogue and Esquire, which ran them under the headline "The Beefcake Boys."

Ritts, then 27, was suddenly a published portrait photographer, though one who still worked as a sales rep for his family's furniture store in West Los Angeles. "I never gloated on it," he says. "I just kind of moved on."

The real beginning, however, is a bit too prosaic to make a great story. Seems that one day months before, he and a friend stood outside a neighbor's garage in the Hollywood Hills. When the friend stepped from the hard sunlight into the open shade inside, Ritts discovered how the soft light changed the man's face in such kind, flattering ways that it became a radiant mask. As the friend turned in a different direction, the reflected sun sparkled in his eyes. Ritts didn't own a camera at the time, but that's when he began to appreciate what the right kind of light can do. It wasn't as much a technical lesson as it was a lesson about the nature of beauty.

Now, 22 years later in Hollywood's Quixote Studios, that early lesson still guides Ritts' work. His four photo assistants are frantically setting up an impromptu shot next to a large, open door that lets in the afternoon glow--garage light revisited. This time, the subject is actor George Clooney, who, made up to look like Clark Gable, casually leans against a ladder with a kiss-me-Scarlett smirk. And this time, Ritts isn't just fooling around with a friend. He's shooting for Vanity Fair and using cameras with screws worth more than that original Miranda. The studio is crowded. Three hair and makeup artists hover. The magazine's stylist comes and goes, largely ignored by Ritts. One assistant checks the focus on Ritts' camera while another stands by with film. A third operates the light meter.

Still, Ritts is after the same essential beauty he saw that day in the Hollywood Hills garage. Actor Edward Norton, who has been before Ritts' camera four times, thinks capturing natural beauty on film is less a professional imperative than a Ritts personality trait: "I feel like Herb really does see everything as beautiful . . . it's almost as if he can't help but see it in its idealized form."

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CELEBRITY PHOTOGRAPHY WAS DONE LONG BEFORE PEOPLE magazine's 1974 debut. Since the 1860s and the mass production of cartes-de-visite--2-by-3-inch paper prints of luminaries such as Queen Victoria, Horatio Alger and Friedrich Nietzsche--we've had celebrity images designed for a seller's profit and an idol's promotion. But it's the rare photographer who can immortalize his subjects while also making them seem somehow mortal.

This, some say, is Herb Ritts' gift. It's as if he lives in a world where no one is ugly.

His mostly black-and-white portraits of the glorified among us are shot with a facile eye for simplicity and style. They often are deceptively casual, sometimes ironic, stripped bare of backgrounds and occasionally clothes. They look like lucky shots of our friends on a good day, without the outlandish staging of David LaChapelle or the edginess of Annie Leibovitz. Ritts instead turns the gods and goddesses of the moment into the icons next door or can sometimes make "unglamorized portraits of glamorous people," according to David Fahey, a Los Angeles photography art dealer and Ritts' exclusive gallery representative.

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