an examination of fashion photographer Herb Ritts and his aesthetic debt to O'Keeffe and Adams

By Wei Lah Poh

Versace, Veiled Dress, El Mirage
Every shot he took was at once riveting, glamorous and strangely understated: that’s what I kept repeating to myself after seeing, Herb Ritts: L.A. Style at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. It’s mystifying how Ritts manages to get such contrary affects and yet uses such basic formal means to achieve them. The mood, each pose, the landscapes he chooses, his use of color are so unified that it’s easy to miss that his work is at once a perfect realization of fashion and its abandonment. He was a fashion photographer who worked regularly for Vanity Fair, Vogue, Allure, Harper’s Bazaar, Glamour and Elle, to name a few, but what he produced seems unlike anything we are used to seeing in those type of magazines. There have been superb fashion photographers before. Irving Penn and Richard Avedon to name two, but Ritts’ fashion is of an entirely different type.

Ritts shot mostly nudes, fashion and celebrity photographs and that makes his work easy to categorize: we know how these photos are supposed to operate, or, better put, we know the job they have to accomplish—selling clothes, selling celebrity and selling the brand. Yet strip away the functional nature of Ritts’ work and you can see a different photographer. The most obvious is his obsession with nature and desolate landscapes. It has a timeless quality that belies the obvious concerns with glamour and celebrity. When we first look at a Ritts’ photograph, we see the celebrity because that’s the context, the way the editors at fashion magazines want us to see a particular photo: Madonna, Naomi Campbell, Versace and all those other fabulous people. They are the focus of our attention, but they aren’t particularly the focus of the photos.
Masked and Nude
Take Versace, Veiled Dress, El Mirage, (1990). It features Naomi Campbell, dressed in a black veil, wearing three inch heels and was shot somewhere in the California desert. The mood is hyper-dramatic. His use of black and white is high-contrast, giving every image in the photo a strong and distinct edge. Shorn from its roots in magazine work and the glamour industry, the photo has a different affect all together than the standard line on Ritts. It is not so much an ad for Versace, but the depiction of one force, nature, against another alien force, fashion. It is an elemental battle and the photo catches what one might describe as a jarring encounter.

Campbell is enveloped in a black veil, which flies in the wind and wraps around her body. It is both translucent and opaque, an odd effect and a little bit of a paradox, but typical of Ritts who can make the quality of anything seem uncertain—nature, beauty, nudity, force, everything transforms when caught by his lens. Campbell is masked and yet completely revealed, as the veil wraps around her and captures all the curves of her body. In the face of a violent and powerful nature, she is not afraid. She is starkly beautiful even if we don’t see her face and we don’t’ have to, because in Ritts’ vision of the world only beauty could combat such force.

What makes Ritts interesting is that this so-called fashion photography is so far from fashion photography. And the question becomes where does he come from, who are his influences and how are we to understand his work? Instead of looking at Ritts as a product of his profession, I’d like to suggest that his true connection is with artists such as Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keeffe. This might seem an odd comparison, but it is precisely Adams’ and O’Keeffe’s visions of nature as a combative and regenerative force that lays the groundwork for what Ritts does later.
We have an overfamiliar relationship with Adams and O’Keeffe, which you could say of Ritts, too. If you like Adams and O’Keeffe, well, you’re in luck because their work is everywhere—not just big museum shows, but also posters, calendars, greeting cards, puzzles and refrigerator stickers. One could say that this cultural colonization is well deserved: their work is beautiful and composed and has become what we might call serious art. Adams and O’Keeffe also make sense together. Born thirteen years apart, their work shares cultural, social and artistic bonds, including the rise of women in 20th century life and a corresponding interest in the feminine. O’Keeffe’s blooming flowers are a radical assertion of female sexuality, while Adams was obsessed with capturing the regenerative quality of life under the harshest and most forbidding of conditions. In many ways they are two sides of the same coin and, like Ritts, were masters of their craft.

Life and Death
Adams was one of the 20th century’s great nature photographers and, among other environmental goods, brought the plight of national parks to a larger public. In Oak Tree, he shows us two contrary or paradoxical states, the grand gesture followed by stillness, the calm before the storm or even the storm after the calm. It’s as tricky as the opaque/translucent black veil in Veiled Dress, El Mirage and it wouldn’t surprise me if Ritts got the idea from Adams. Instead of Ritts’ desert, here we have snow. There is so much snow, but a silhouette of a tree somehow dominates what we see and is the single most important element of the picture. At first glance the picture seems murky, but slow down and take a deep breath and the blackness of the branches draws you in. Your gaze comes to the snow-covered leaves and then you notice every snow-covered leaf connected to a branch and the way the branches stem to its roots. It’s like blinking and discovering an entirely new photograph. Without work like this, it would be hard to imagine Ritts.
Look Twice
Ritts may not have been the first person to discover the beauty and eloquence of black and white photography, but he understood what Adams had done and extended it into the improbable world of celebrity glamour. His work was sexy, but it wasn’t confined to that and delved into a vision that required the skill and force of a true artist. Unlike most glamour shots, his subjects aren’t trying to impress and take over the shot; instead, they frolic in his images. That tension is there in the softness of his gestures and in the boldness of his compositions. Ritts is the culmination of O’Keeffe and Adams.

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