Herb Ritts may not be a household name, but much of the art he created has become ingrained in popular culture.
“Chances are you've seen his work and you just don't know it,” said Sandy Cotton, development director for the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, where the special exhibition “Herb Ritts: Beauty and Celebrity” opens to the public Thursday.
Take, for instance, the 15-foot banner of Madonna hanging outside the museum, which will look familiar to anyone who owns or once owned the singer's “True Blue,” one of the top-selling albums of the 1980s. The black-and-white silver gelatin print “Madonna (True Blue Profile)” is one of 80 large-scale photos included in the new exhibit.
“Herb Ritts became woven immediately into American culture in the 1980s and '90s because of so many magazine covers and magazine editorials, fashion advertisements, commercials and also music videos,” said Jennifer Klos, associate curator at the museum.
“(He was) extremely influential. Herb Ritts created and propelled his own style.”
The black-and-white photos in the exhibit depict notable personalities, including Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Axl Rose, Christopher Reeve, Matthew McConaughey, Dale Chihuly, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Nelson Mandela, and Ronald and Nancy Reagan.
Growing up in Brentwood, Calif., Ritts was neighbors with actor Steve McQueen. The self-taught photographer worked primarily in Southern California and launched his career with the intimate publicity photos of Richard Gere he shot in 1978 at a gas station in San Bernardino.
“He probably knew and grew up from a very young age sort of understanding the idea that fame or celebrity was really a byproduct of their business in Los Angeles. That happened to be their job. But he saw through to the very personal side of all of his subjects,” Klos said.
Ritts preferred to work with natural light and in black and white, emphasizing bold shapes and compositions and spotlighting the beauty of the human form.
“Herb Ritts embodied the life of Southern California and the natural light that he had in Los Angeles. He focused on ‘The Golden Hour,' which was midafternoon from about 3 to 6 p.m. He preferred photographing his subjects outdoors. He often photographed them on the beach, in the desert, and even on the roof terrace of his Hollywood studio,” Klos said.
Ritts' portraits convey the strength and sensuality, fluidity and energy, of the human form. He photographed dancer/choreographer Bill T. Jones in the nude in a monumental frieze, a series of images that capture the subject in various dance moves, illustrating the power and grace of the human body.
“Herb Ritts' image of the human form becomes almost an embodiment of classical sculpture,” Klos said.
While the exhibit features many of Ritts' iconic images of famous folks, it also spans his career and includes rare photos from his 1990s Africa and “Corp et Ames” series. In 1993, the artist took a personal trip to East Africa and became enamored with photographing the Maasai people.
“It's a look at the essence of beauty without the undertones of fame and celebrity,” Klos said. “Here you have Herb Ritts outside of his environment of Southern California yet very much inspired by some of the same natural elements ... and focusing on the human body and its role in nature.”
Also, the Oklahoma City museum is the first-ever venue to exhibit photos from Ritts' 1999 “Corp et Ames” series, featuring dancers from the San Francisco Ballet. The title is French for “heart and soul,” and the photos were originally commissioned by French Vogue, which ran about eight of the more than 45 images he included in the series.
“The editors felt that they would like ballet dancers to evoke the sculpture quality of the fashion,” Klos said. “What we'll see here is truly a very unique series that has never been on view before. ... Herb Ritts was very proud of this series and it was one he wanted to build upon before his death.”
Ritts died in 2002 at the age of 50.
“Herb Ritts passed away truly at the height of his career. He left an indelible imprint on American culture,” Klos said. “Whether he intended it or not, his images did end up shaping a generation.”