By Jordan Riefe
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - In the 1980s and '90s, photographer Herb Ritts' black and white portraits of movie stars and models like Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell created a look that was emblematic of the era, and now they are the subject of a major exhibit at Los Angeles' Getty Center.
"Herb Ritts: L.A. Style," which launched on Tuesday and runs through August 26, features renowned work by the artist including vintage prints, magazine covers, commercials and music videos. Around 20 percent of the photographs are on display for the first time. Ritts died in 2002, age 50.
"These were either never seen before or published once in an editorial spread in a magazine, then just sat in the archive," curator Paul Martineau told Reuters. "I was looking to balance the iconic pictures that everyone knows and loves with the pictures that no one knows."
Photographs that "everyone knows and loves" include a seminal portrait of Richard Gere in a San Bernardino gas station in 1977, wearing a t-shirt and smoking a cigarette. The shot was taken while the movie star and Ritts waited for the station attendant to change a flat tire.
Gere's "Looking for Mr. Goodbar" hit theaters a few months later with the actor in a memorable supporting role that launched his career. Within months, the young photographer found his photos in the pages of Vogue, Esquire and Mademoiselle, with the last publication offering him his first assignment photographing Brooke Shields.
Also included at the Getty is the iconic "Fred with Tires" in which a muscular male model stripped to the waist stares at the camera, a heavy tire in each hand. The photo shoot from which it sprang was for an Italian designer, but when Ritts received the clothing, he and his stylist rejected it and dressed his model in overalls instead.
"They had Fred swinging the tires all around the garage," recounted Martineau. "And this picture happened in a moment of repose when the exhausted model just stopped and was saying, ‘Do I need to continue doing this? It's killing me."
The pictures were not what the magazine requested, but it was so powerful they ran them anyway causing a sensation.
"This is what confirmed to Herb that he should follow his own inner compass," said Martineau.
LOCATION AND IMPROVISATION
Ritts primarily used natural lighting whether working on his Los Angeles rooftop studio or a dry lake bed in El Mirage where he shot some of his most arresting photos.
"Locations and light in and around Los Angeles permeated his work and really became a part of this new style," Martineau said. "When we look at these pictures it's so clear that the work is infused with his love of the natural environment and also incorporates other aspects of Los Angeles such as old Hollywood and body culture."
Crawford has said that Ritts would show up to a shoot with visual concepts which they would discuss. Together the photographer and model would commit those ideas to film and then improvise, using various props, poses and expressions.
Many previously unseen photos included in the show were taken after a particular assignment was completed. Using props and equipment at hand, Ritts would work out visual motifs and styles with which he'd been toying in his creative mind.
Included in that group are a stunning print of Cindy Crawford in a velvet gown on a Malibu beach, as well as a portrait of another muse, model Tatjana Patitz, with elements of sea and sand.
While working, Ritts was known to be polite but persistent. And because he took mainly flattering portraits of his subjects, he was well trusted by them.
In the case of "Djimon with Octopus," the photographer used his full powers of persuasion to get actor Djimon Hounsou (a frequent collaborator) to wear a dead octopus on his head.
"The model said, ‘I'll give you 15 minutes and that's it,'" offered Martineau. "But that was only after Herb convinced him that this would make an amazing picture." Shot in 1989, the photo established an auction record for the artist at $29,800.
Many of the photos on display are from the 69 pieces acquired by the Getty last August, a portion donated by the Herb Ritts Foundation. Together, it is the largest collection of Ritts photos on the west coast.
"In all these pictures, if you examine them closely, you'll find amazing lighting," observed Martineau. "But they are so simple and easy to grasp that even if you don't know anything about photography, you can still come and enjoy the imagery."
(Reporting by Jordan Riefe; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)