‘Cherish’—that is the word that comes to mind when contemplating the breathtaking Herb Ritts exhibit at the Getty Center. Herb Ritts L.A. Style is on display until the end of August, and it features some of the photographer’s most stunning work. The Getty describes Ritts quite succinctly—“He revolutionized fashion photography, modernized the nude and transformed celebrities into icons.” More than that, Herb Ritts, an extraordinarily talented gay man, had a profound impact on American culture.
‘Cherish’ is the word I use to remind myself of Ritts because of his work with celebrity icon Madonna. Like many gay boys who grew up in the ‘80s, I was first introduced to Herb Ritts the person when I saw Madonna’s “Cherish” video. It was the first video directed by Ritts, and it’s just water, sun, sand and Madonna—and hunky mermen, of course.
Unbeknownst to me, Ritts’ work was already a big part of my teenage experience. I was a huge Madonna fan, and Herb Ritts shot practically every picture I encountered of the pop singer. The album cover for Madonna’s True Blue is still one of her most memorable, and it’s prominently featured in this exhibit.
Ritts’ work was ubiquitous in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, and this exhibit demonstrates how successful he was at bringing incredible works of art into the mainstream. We witnessed his talent on covers of Vogue and Vanity Fair, in Calvin Klein commercials and in sexually charged music videos, such as “Wicked Games” and “Love Will Never Do Without You.” He often used water, shadows and the California sun to create images that evoked emotion, pushed gender lines and depicted intimate sexuality.
But the work of Herb Ritts doesn’t just tell the American story; it tells the story of the gay experience. I think every gay man has seen Ritts’ iconic photo “Fred With Tires.” It’s an image of gritty sexuality—a shirtless, muscular model who stands holding two tires amongst the dirt and grease of a mechanic shop. This became one of the most popular posters of all time and was found everywhere, from dorm rooms to gay bars.
Ritts’ photos represent so many different parts of the gay experience. His magazine covers captured the glamour and excitement of people like Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, Cindy Crawford and k.d. lang. His stunning photograph of a young Greg Louganis evokes images from body builder magazines of the 1950s. Many of his photos captured the virility and sensuality of men and their bodies, while other photos capture the silence and pain of a man living with the secret of HIV.
Herb Ritts died of AIDS in 2002. The cause of his death was a secret for a while, and it exemplified how HIV stigma can prevent so many from living open and honest lives. He had a talent for capturing such truth and beauty in photographs, but up until the end
he couldn’t reveal his very real struggle with HIV, even 22 years into the epidemic.
Herb Ritts is one of many gay men we lost too soon to a senseless disease. One can only imagine what exquisite photographs he could have taken had he survived. That too is part of the gay experience—what might have been.
This incredible exhibit was put together with great care and insight. It is about the talent, vision and legacy of a remarkable artist. Herb Ritts left an indelible imprint on our lives with his astounding photographs. He proved that a pop singer in a leather jacket or a model with an octopus on his head could be works of art—and also be an important part of our popular culture. It’s an experience you won’t want to miss.