It’s hard to imagine, with her perfectly styled outfits and tightly guarded interviews, that Madonna was ever able to pose nude for the cover of her True Blue album, wearing nothing but a leather jacket. But she did so for Herb Ritts, the legendary photographer who’s the subject of a new show, L.A. Style, which opens this week at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
“What does it mean to get Herbified?” Madonna has said. “It goes a little something like this: He talks you into going to the beach. Then, he talks you into taking off your clothes. He talks you into dancing and frolicking in the sand like an idiot. He talks you into getting into the freezing cold ocean, and before you know it, you have a sunburn and you’re freezing your ass off and you’re sure you’ve just made a huge fool out of yourself.”
Portraits of Madonna, Naomi Campbell, Richard Gere, and Cindy Crawford are included in this wide-reaching show of Ritts’s work. It spans his three-decade career, and includes numerous celebrity portraits, classical nudes, and heroic pictures of athletes and dancers. The exhibition covers Ritts’s extensive editorial work, spanning his early fashion editorials for Vogue and Vanity Fair, and the sumptuous campaigns he shot for Valentino and Versace. There are plenty of commercial images, too—including those he did for Chanel, Lancôme, Estée Lauder, and Calvin Klein—that demonstrate the fine line that Ritts walked between editorial and commercial imagery. The show also veers into Ritts’s film work: from 1989 to his death in 2002, he directed 13 music videos (including some for Janet Jackson and Madonna) and more than 50 commercials.
By the mid-’80s, Ritts had set up shop in Hollywood, and though he denied having a specific style (or being influenced by Los Angeles) it’s clear from his sun-drenched portraits, dramatic beach scenes, and saturated desert landscapes that Ritts was a product of his environment. His work is a convergence of light and movement on the human form. But there’s also a style of anti-glamour to it, as he brings his famous subjects out of their usual settings and into the natural world. There is Djimon Hounsou with an octopus on his head, and Cindy Crawford emerging like Venus de Milo from the waves. “Ritts took old Hollywood glamour and took it out of the studio, and made his sitters more accessible to their fans,” says Paul Martineau, curator of the exhibition and associate curator of photographs at the Getty. “His images reinvigorated Hollywood’s image around the world—and made it appear like a happening place rather than a cultural backwater.”
Almost all his images—whether they’re headless nudes or intimate portraits of celebrities—convey a sense of trust between the sitter and the photographer. There’s a sense that each photo shoot was a party that we missed; a time well-spent among close friends. One of Ritts’s most iconic pictures is a group of young nude models huddled together: Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, and Christy Turlington among them. “Herb saw the best in everyone, so that’s how he photographed you,” Crawford later said. “I think because you knew you were going to look great, you could totally trust him.”