Photographer Herb Ritts died of complications from pneumonia at UCLA Medical Center last Dec. 26. He was 50. In his life, Ritts earned international recognition as a fashion, celebrity and fine art photographer who helped define the image-conscious 1980s and '90s.
"Herb had a sense of the iconic, he could either reduce or elevate a person of prominence to their visual essence," says David Friend, editor of creative development at Vanity Fair and former director of photography at Life magazine. "Almost like a great caricaturist working with very few lines, or a great sculptor working with just the right tools, he was able to make that iconic representation of a person."
Friend says Ritts captured his subjects because they felt comfortable with him. "Herb was a very generous, giving guy, and that comes through in his pictures. People felt relaxed, he was really able to get people to open up because they trusted him. You can feel that connection in his images."
Ritts was born in Los Angeles in 1952. The family furniture business, Ritts Co. on Santa Monica Boulevard, was known for its acrylic pieces. Though Ritts was voted "Most Likely to Succeed" at Paul Revere Junior High School in West L.A., he really didn't know at what.
"I don't think there was anything specifically that I had in mind at the time," he later said. "I guess I had a lot of energy, so people thought I would do well." Time would prove them right.
This evening Ritts will be honored with a special tribute award from the International Photography Awards at the Beverly Hilton hotel. An exhibition of Ritts' work will open this Thursday at the Fahey/Klein Gallery on La Brea Avenue and will run through Jan. 24. It features well-known photographs and some that have never been shown publicly.
Several years ago, I spent an afternoon with Ritts at his Santa Monica Boulevard studio in preparation for my book, "Faces of the Twentieth Century: Master Photographers and Their Work" (Abbeville Press, 1998). We retraced his steps, which began with a most unlikely start--a gas station east of Los Angeles.
Your photography career started in an unusual way.
I was a sales rep for my father's furniture company when I literally fell into photography. I had a Miranda camera and started taking pictures of roommates and friends, and the one that put me in a place that got me published was Richard Gere. We had taken some pictures at the beginning of his film career, just prior to the  release of "Days of Heaven." Richard mentioned to the publicist that I had taken some pictures that he liked and that my work should be considered with all the real photographers that were shooting him. They ended up in Vogue, Esquire and Mademoiselle, all in one month.
What kind of shots did you take of Gere?
The photos were taken at a gas station in San Bernardino. We were there to fix a flat tire and I said, "This looks good," so we took some shots. Mademoiselle got so much fan mail from Richard's picture that the art director tracked me down and called me out of the blue: "Can you shoot Brooke Shields for us in a few days?" So I said, "Great." I just went down to shoot her on a soundstage during a movie shoot and did a double-page spread.
How did the fashion photography end of your career get going?
While things happened on one front with personalities, I continued taking pictures of friends. At one point I went to a furniture show in New York for my folks and I had a little paper sack of around 15 of my pictures. I was staying with a friend of mine who was a model named Michael Holder. Every morning his girlfriend, Lisette, would scurry past me sleeping on the couch. I never really met her, but apparently he showed her this little bag of pictures, because three weeks later, big red trunks arrived at my home from Italy containing all these men's clothes--Versace, Armani, Missoni. It turns out she was from Italian Harper's Bazaar and wanted me to shoot the whole men's collection because she really liked my pictures. I didn't even know she had seen them. I grabbed Matt Collins [a model and friend] and we went down to the beach in Santa Monica and shot 20 pages of the fall collection under the pier. That sort of started it.
At that point were you still working as a furniture rep for your parents?
The first year or two I continued to work for them. With the money I got from the catalog project I bought some Nikons.
Which photographers have influenced you?