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The Genius of Herb Ritts, Celebrated in “The Rock Portraits”

The Chrysler Museum of Art presents a three decade retrospective of iconic music photography.

Miss Rosenby Miss Rosen
Photo:  Herb Ritts (American, 1952–2002). Chris Isaak, New York, 1984.

“It’s always more comforting to know that in any given corner of any room or any location you’re on, you can make a photograph that you’ll appreciate,” American photographer Herb Ritts (1952–2002) observed. His commitment to the medium has produced a body of work whose legacy speaks to the transcendent power of photography.

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A Los Angeles native, Ritts got into the game after photographing his friend, Richard Gere, who was an aspiring actor trying to draw attention to himself. The pictures were hot and people were catching on, hiring Ritts to shoot Olivia Newton-John for Physical (1981). Starting at the top, Ritts maintained a career so singular his work has come to define the look and feel of the era. His work was everywhere—and it was always good. There was a sense that you were right there with him, in luxurious locations with the most celebrated artists, models, and musicians of the time, living the high life til the end of time.

Herb Ritts (American, 1952–2002), Madonna, Hollywood, 1986, From the True Blue album cover

Herb Ritts (American, 1952–2002), Madonna, Hollywood, 1986, From the True Blue album cover

In celebration, the Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA, presents Herb Ritts: The Rock Portraits on view now through September 18, 2016. Organized by two of his closest friends and colleagues, Laurie Kratochvil, former Director of Photography for Rolling Stone, and Mark McKenna, Executive Director of the Herb Ritts Foundation, the exhibition features three decades of work, with iconic photographs of Prince, David Bowie, Tina Turner, B.B. King, Cher, Janet Jackson, Madonna, Elton John, Sting, Paul McCartney, Bono, k.d. lang, and Bruce Springsteen, among others.

Mark McKenna reveals, “Herb was self taught. He took a few evening classes but he did not train at a college. He graduated from Bard with a degree in economics. He approached his photographs without any preconceived ideas. He allowed a spontaneity and a moment to happen between himself and the subject. He provided a creative atmosphere, and was confident and open in the session. He tried to develop a relationship with his subject; that was a little unusual. With Herb, the shot was part of the process so he focused on the edit and selection of the images; he spent so much time on the final edit. The selection of the images to the world says, this was truly his vision.”

Herb Ritts (American, 1952–2002). Tina Turner, Hollywood, 1989. Foreign Affair album promotion

Herb Ritts (American, 1952–2002). Tina Turner, Hollywood, 1989. Foreign Affair album promotion

And what a gift he bestowed: the world through the eyes of a master speaking artist to artist without ever saying a word. If a picture says a thousand words, The Rock Portraits adds rhythm and melody to them, harmonizing, electrifying chords, bridges, and breaks. Though the portraits are silent, they crackle and pop, drawing us into their spell.

“He was drawn to creative types. He knew music was a motivational tool that connected to many people. Music was a part of the photo shoots; they could turn the day into something different. In the early ‘90s we used to travel with a stereo and 1500–2000 CDs,” McKenna disclosed. Creating a vibe was essential to the shoots, and music was catnip to the artists, allowing them to relax and connect to their natural milieu. “Herb was trying to capture their essence. There’s a continuity in the images that he was making for himself,” McKenna concludes.

Herb Ritts (American, 1952–2002). David Bowie III, Los Angeles, 1987. Photographed for Rolling Stone Magazine

Herb Ritts (American, 1952–2002). David Bowie III, Los Angeles, 1987. Photographed for Rolling Stone Magazine

The beauty of a Ritts portrait is its gentleness, luring you into a feeling of ease, pleasure, and repose. Like a true master, he makes it look easy time and time again. McKenna observes, “Herb was such a tremendous and kind person. When he was making images, he was always capturing a beauty in somebody, his vision of the beauty in them and what made them special and interesting.”

It is this gracious tete-a-tete that pervades the work, reminding us of the era when Herb Ritts photographs were everywhere. From album covers to magazines, billboards to bus stops, all you had to do was open your eyes to share Ritts’s vision of the world. The Rock Portraits transports us back in time, when the legends were young and fresh, beautiful gods and goddesses of modern life and the glory of art.

All photos: © and courtesy of Herb Ritts Foundation.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.