Obituary: Herb Ritts

Photographer who turned the glamorous celebrity lifestyle into art

Herb Ritts, the glamour photographer who has died aged 50, was born to money, the Los Angeles sunlight, the Californian body-beautiful culture of the beach house at Malibu and cabin at Catalina, and the star home (that of Steve McQueen) next door to the family's 27-room ranch. Not that he ever intended to make his living, and life, just being Californian.

In 1975, he took an economics degree and studied art history, before returning to West Hollywood to work for the family furniture firm, selling props to movie sets. He also took a course in black and white portrait photography.

Then, in 1978, when he was 26 and just having fun, Ritts and his (then unknown) actor buddy Richard Gere, got a puncture in their Buick Le Sabre while driving round the desert. Gere changed the tyre, and then posed in a garage in San Bernardino, sweaty in a singlet, cigarette provocative in mouth. "I can't remember whether I told him to put his arms over his head or whether I just clicked when he stretched," Ritts said of his impromptu model, who, within a year, was a star.

The following year, he blagged his way on to the set of The Champ, and caught a fast shot of John Voight which made it into Newsweek.

Ritts suited the emerging taste of the time, the gay-inspired, high-concept Hollywood and fashion culture that venerated the perfect body and the celebritous face. As Bryan Appleyard wrote: "It is difficult to say which came first - Ritts or the gym cult - but they are the same thing."

With the zeitgeist on his side, Ritts took only five years before his was the cover pic name on Vanity Fair, Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, GQ and Interview magazine. He shot the new couture of Gianni Versace and Calvin Klein, where clothes were superfluous decorations on the toned bodies of such supermodels as Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell.

In 1989, he took a group portrait of the entire cast of supermodeldom, naked - no setting, no ambiance, just the bodies. He adored developed muscles, their play under skin, as in his picture of the athlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee, whose head and shoulders are visible only as shadows on the sand, the better to concentrate on her running thighs.

Many of his nudes and partially bare subjects, like the upper body of Fred With Tires, Hollywood 1984 - the basis for a Levi jeans advertisement - do not seem to be photographs of human beings at all, rather they are pictures of skilfully textured bronze statues. His pleasure at black models came from the gleam of their skin, shining under studio lamps or the African sun, under which he also photographed Masai subjects exquisitely, as artworks.

His approach to portraits of celebs was abstract, too. He allowed no clutter through the shutter to distract from the well-known features. Only the iconographic essentials were loomingly present. Jack Nicholson's wicked smile was enlarged by a magnifying glass, or half-hidden by a hand on his Raybans. Glenn Close peered through a caricature of a clown painted on her face. When Monica Lewinsky posed for Ritts, the stylists made her over as a small-town bad girl. Ritts went straight for the massive ripe lips.

His other approach was not quite a narrative, more a cartoon set-up - like Cindy Crawford, in not a lot, shaving kd lang in drag, for a Vanity Fair cover. It might be a frame from a music video: Ritts directed them, too, winning two MTV awards in 1991. Singers in his videos intertwine with the supporting cast - including Britney Spears and male models - but stay emotionally isolated.

Yet the coolness in every sense of Ritts's work did not make his subjects anxious. They knew he was on their side: "His purpose was always to make you look good," said Gere. He was comfortable with everyone, and trusted too - trusted to show Christopher Reeve in heroic profile in his wheelchair, Stephen Hawking fighting through to articulation, Elizabeth Taylor flaunting her brain surgery scar, and a yet-to-be-published session with UN secretary general Kofi Annan.

He worked in advertising successfully, idealising a Gap t-shirt just as well as the face of Nelson Mandela or the pectorals of Brad Pitt; he also did campaigns for Donna Karan, Revlon and Tag Hauer. But Ritts also wanted to be appreciated as an artist, and, to that end, published anthologies of pictures, including Work (1997), and put on major exhibitions in Boston (1996) and Paris (2000).

His 1993 book on Africa was meant to project his view as serious, but, in interviews, he enthused that all his subjects "posed like naturals". Ever thoughtful, he sent them copies of the $50 volume, and told friends that its elegant lioness killing a gazelle - she might be a supermodel wearing an Armani pelt - was photographed at a watering hole, where he was close enough to hear her crunching the bones.

Ritts had told his parents he was gay at college, long before such an announcement was acceptable. His mother, Shirley, was proud of him. "Herb has great integrity," she said, "He'd call and tell me to turn on the television because there was something on about him, and I'd say, 'You look great.' He'd say, 'But, mom, how about the work?' "

He is survived by his partner, Erik Hyman.

· Herb Ritts, photographer, born 1952; died December 26 2002


Veronica Horwell

The GuardianTramp

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