Herb Ritts seemed to take the easy road to fame and fortune in the field of photography: If you perfect your art and shoot pictures of glamorous people whose images are in great demand, you can become almost as big a star as your subjects.
But it isn't quite that simple. While making exquisitely crafted images of beautiful people plucked from the top rosters of movie stars, rock stars, sports figures and supermodels, he plied a trade in which rewards tend to be fleeting. Even the few celebrity photographers who rise to the pinnacle attained by Ritts, who died Thursday in Los Angeles, can have a tough time getting respect in high art circles.
He made the cut because his personal style and aesthetic sensibility fit the temper of the times, critics and curators say. While developing a distinctive body of work that carries on the tradition of celebrity photography, he also took the art form in a new direction.
"He tapped into a certain changeover in celebrity -- from an unattainable glamour or theatrical veneer to sensuality -- which was beginning to happen when he started taking photographs," says Tim B. Wride, associate curator of photography at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. As his career evolved, Ritts "actually defined that changeover, and that made his subjects more accessible. By doing that, he spawned a whole new generation of celebrity and art photography."
Ritts also won the admiration of his peers. "Doing what we do, photographing personalities, you have to get them to drop their guard," says Los Angeles photographer Greg Gorman. "Sometimes they don't even know who they are, and it takes a photographer to draw that out. Herb was very good at that."
The bodies and faces Ritts pictured may appear ravishingly beautiful, but "he had an ease and a kind of naturalness that flew in the face of other celebrity photographers, for whom art direction was the be-all, end-all," Wride says. "He used the medium of photography with a seeming lack of artifice, a more natural sensuality." Ritts photographed Richard Gere in the 1970s during a trip to the desert. The images became iconic, propelling them both to fame. "Even in those photos, you could see where he was coming from," Gere said Friday. "He saw beauty everywhere. His pictures have that kind of gentility about them."
Another subject, Elizabeth Taylor, called Ritts "one of the most brilliant photographers I've ever worked with."
The first major museum exhibition of Ritts' work was held in 1996 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, at the invitation of museum director Malcolm Rogers. More than 250,000 visitors attended the show of 230 celebrity portraits, fashion shots, images of Africa and studies of the human form. It was a breakthrough for Ritts that expanded the venerable institution's audience. His work also reached a broad sector of the public through such books as "Notorious" and "Africa." And specialists say his achievement isn't likely to be forgotten.
"His work is part of our collection," Wride says. "I would be surprised if it weren't part of every major photo collection in the country. It's emblematic of an era."
Times staff writers Louise Roug and Michael Quintanilla contributed to this report.