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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

Ritts treats us to the beautiful few just horsing around--Julia Roberts in her boyfriend's skivvies, Madonna clutching her crotch, a cross-dressing Cindy Crawford, a pregnant Annette Bening lounging with husband Warren Beatty on their couch, some bare-chested gym rat named Fred holding two tires. Ritts also has created remarkable portraits of Ronald Reagan, Tom Cruise, Stephen Hawking, the Dalai Lama and Monica Lewinsky at the height of her fame. They're lasting, memorable images, and yet some have derided them as mere celebrity posters with no deeper artistic value. One particularly mean-spirited critic even compared the Jewish Ritts to Third Reich documentarian Leni Riefenstahl and dismissed his work as "Master-Race Eroticism." But Ingrid Sischy, Interview magazine's editor in chief, thinks the iconographic quality of Ritts' work is what sets him apart from his contemporaries. "There might be dozens and dozens of photographers in this field," she says, "but there aren't that many who can make classics."

Ritts' ability to create enduring images makes him popular with stars who recognize the promotional value of photos that outlast the magazines in which they're printed. But Ritts, now 48, is clearly weary of being pegged as a celebrity photographer. Nearly half a million people toured a four-city traveling retrospective of his work, and Ritts points out that only half of the images in that show featured celebrities. The other half were Ritts' fashion shots and personal work, mostly of nudes.

"I think sometimes because the way the world turns, because you're suddenly shooting Madonna, that's all somebody thinks of you," he says.

Still, it's not a bad way to make a living. Ritts has an exclusive contract with publisher Conde Nast said to be worth about $1 million a year. As a fashion photographer, he works for Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Chanel, Revlon and Giorgio Armani, earning some $40,000 a day plus another $40,000 or so for usage rights. On top of that, he often gets $30,000 to $60,000 per day for crew, equipment rental and travel costs.

In addition, film studios such as Paramount and Warner Bros. hire him for movie advertising. Ritts also co-owns a production company called Ritts/Hayden that makes commercials and music videos, some of which Ritts directs. According to his agent, Vernon Jolly, Ritts turns down about one-third of all offered assignments.

Because money isn't everything.


THE FAMILIAR FACES RITTS SHOOTS FOR AMERICAN MAGAZINES occasionally "have a certain view of themselves and aren't willing to try something else." (That's about as testy as Ritts ever gets about his subjects.) But he's often more excited during shoots for European magazines, which give him broader creative control.

"I really do enjoy the fact that the Europeans, I think, respect and appreciate photography more than American publications," he says.

In the case of a two-day fashion shoot for French Vogue last January, Ritts says he was paid next to nothing but took the job because contributing fashion editor Sarajane Hoare agreed to let him do all of the things that her American peers would never allow--such as having feature model Frankie Ryder wear only a sneer and a live Burmese python. Ritts draped the snake over Ryder's back as she stretched across a rock at Vasquez Rocks in Agua Dulce, near Santa Clarita. The idea was that Ryder eventually would don clothes--this was a fashion shoot, after all--made from snakeskin, and Ritts clearly enjoyed himself as he committed his snake-and-model scene to film.

"I don't think American magazines are stretching him to his full potential," Hoare explains. "You see, [U.S.] magazines don't really publish weird images."

Things are considerably more sedate during the Vanity Fair shoot. Clooney poses with blackened hair, sporting a fake pencil-thin mustache parted in the middle and a black pinstriped, single-breasted Armani suit with white shirt and gray tie. The bespectacled Ritts, by contrast, is wearing a navy blue cap that hides thinning, combed-back hair, a hooded black jacket and warmup-style pants.

Helmut Newton, the 79-year-old master photographer of the bizarre and erotic (and Ritts' idol), is shooting a Rolex ad next door to the Clooney session. He offers this: "I think [Ritts] has a kind of human quality that is very warm. Very important for the kind of work that he does. I wish I had that warmth."

"Nobody rubs him the wrong way," says Erik Hyman, a 32-year-old entertainment attorney and Ritts' companion for four years. When the two met at a mutual friend's dinner party in New York, Hyman recalls, "there was just something about him that was lovely and open and cute. I immediately fell in love with him."

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