The Golden Hour, a new book about legendary fashion photographer Herb Ritts by Charles Churchward with an introduction by Richard Gere, comes out this week. Fashion designer L’Wren Scott writes exclusively for The Daily Beast about her old friend.
I first met Herb Ritts in 1995. He was already legendary.
If Herb taught me one lesson, it was this: You are only as good as the people you surround yourself with. His team was so dedicated to him—and quite rightly so. When a photo assistant wanted to go home to see his family in England for the holidays, Herb paid for it. When his mother turned 70, he gave her a $70,000 shopping spree at Barneys. I once fell in love with a photo from an exhibition I visited with Herb, and it was delivered to my home the next day.
These were small gestures of love from Herb, but his true love was his art: taking a photo and, more importantly, creating an image. He would up and say, “Hi, L’Wren, so we have this great assignment: to shoot a very handsome, up-and-coming actor named Matthew. No one really knows him yet, and Graydon [Carter] wants to do a cover shoot for Vanity Fair, so we need to create an image and give him a look like some great movie star.” Herb sent me a photo of this “grungy hippie-type surfer boy,” as he called him. “We need to clean him up and make him iconic.” One week later, we were in the desert on a ranch hours away from Los Angeles shooting Matthew McConaughey with the 1963 movie Hud as our inspiration. He went from unknown actor to Hollywood icon overnight.
We had another assignment to shoot Dustin Hoffman. Herb said, “Call him up and see what his fantasy character is.” It was Salvador Dali. So we shot him complete with a mustache, cape, and cane. Herb always wanted to have fun and make sure whoever he shot remembered it with fondness. If someone did not think they looked good enough, well, then they were not being shot by Herb Ritts. In the ‘Golden Hour’—as he liked to call it—armed with just his camera and with the help of three photo assistants, Herb would take some of his most memorable pictures. Sometimes, when he worried that the weather would not deliver his magic light, he would bring his own. Oh for the days of the great productions when every star felt they had just stepped into the most important movie set! Only it was Herb’s world, with his team of the best hair and makeup artists and the perfect location. He always wanted to make sure everyone had something wonderful and delicious to eat. If their budget did not permit such extravagance, he would indulge everyone and secretly pay for it himself.
The first time I went with Herb to the Vanity Fair party in 1996, I remember just sitting in the corner and watching people gravitate toward him: Madonna, Richard Gere; supermodels such as Cindy, Naomi, and Christie. I don’t think anyone has captured Julia Roberts’ smile or Sophia Loren’s cleavage like Herb did. And no one has ever made so many celebrities and models feel so comfortable taking off their clothes. I remember working with him on an editorial for French Vogue. It was meant to be eight to 10 pages. Herb asked that I ensure all the clothes fit the actress—and that I bring only seven perfect looks to the set, rather than racks and racks of clothes. As he had such little time, he wanted only to focus on the perfect image for each look and not be distracted by trying on clothing. It was a bold move, but it worked.
Gallery: Herb Ritts’ Iconic Photography
“The legends,” as I called them, were always my favorite shoots. The White Diamonds advertisement with Elizabeth Taylor was my all-time favorite. Herb was so obsessed that she was happy and loved her pictures, it took weeks of planning to make the set perfect. He wanted her to have a special golf cart bring her from the makeup trailer to the set so her dog could ride alongside her. When she got there, Elizabeth pulled off her own massive diamond earrings and quoted her famous ad: “These have always brought me luck!” But when she saw the jewels for the shoot, she exclaimed: “Oh wow! What can I keep?” I looked nervously at Herb, because he always knew the perfect thing to say. “Oh Elizabeth,” he said. “That’s a surprise. We have not even started shooting yet.” After the shoot, Herb arranged for a very special small box to be delivered to Elizabeth.
I don’t think anyone has captured Julia Roberts’ smile or Sophia Loren’s cleavage like Herb did.
Herb treated everyone big or small with great love and admiration. If he liked you, he liked you—rich and famous or an unknown assistant. He was kind to everyone, and wanted everything to be sparkly like he was. I quickly came to realize the more talented the artist, the more secure. That was the magic of Herb.
L’Wren Scott is an internationally renowned fashion designer, stylist, and model. Her eponymous label is built upon a philosophy of timeless style, rejecting the concept of trends in favor of creating versatile, classic pieces that can be worn in a variety ways and environments. She can be found at www.lwrenscott.com.