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.