In 1977, a 26-year-old salesman named Herb Ritts and an unknown actor by the name of Richard Gere set out on the open roads of California in a Buick owned by Richard’s then-girlfriend, actress Penny Milford. As luck would have it, the Buick blew a flat tire, sidetracking the newfound friends to a desert gas station in San Bernardino, where an impromptu photoshoot took place. Three months later, the image of Richard smoking a dangling cigarette in a white tank top and jeans was published in Vogue, Esquire and Mademoiselle. And just like that, Ritts’ career as a photographer was born.
In the two decades that followed, Ritts perfected his signature clean, graphic photographs on everyone from the Dalai Lama to David Bowie. He would go on to produce over 40 magazine spreads, direct 13 music videos (Madonna, Janet Jackson, Britney Spears) and 50-plus commercials (Calvin Klein, Chanel, Cartier) and publish 8 books.
In celebration of his prolific career, two museums are unveiling must-see exhibitions this month. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, whose groundbreaking 1996 retrospective Herb Ritts: WORK remains one of the most popular exhibits in the history of the museum, will be showing Herb Ritts from March 14 to November 8. But don’t expect a repeat of the 90s retrospective. James Leighton, curatorial research associate at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, explains, “The current exhibition of Herb Ritts works is organized into two of the primary themes of Ritts’ work—the body and celebrity. There are also 15 photographs (from a recent gift) not included in the original show, along with music videos and ads. A selection of the new photographs was made after the 1996 exhibition.”
“Herb Ritts worked at a time where the lines between art and commerce blurred, and he actively challenged the assumption that a commercial assignment could not have a fine art application,” Leighton added. “In retrospect, he strove to create works that lived on beyond the life of the publication.”
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland is also paying homage to the famed photographer in a new exhibit entitled Herb Ritts: The Rock Portraits. Starting Friday, March 13, museum-goers can expect a presentation of 30 never-before-seen photographs, video footage and contact sheets along with firsthand accounts of musicians describing what it was like to work with Ritts.
“When Herb Ritts photographed some of the icons featured in this show, his images were so magnificent that they often went from a portrait to THE portrait,” said Karen Herman, vice president of collections and curatorial affairs for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. “Herb Ritts had a natural gift for making his subjects feel comfortable. They trusted him. You can visibly see that trust in his work. His subjects allowed him to capture their more vulnerable sides. The music icons featured in this show are not models, yet they all could be through Ritts’ talent. With his mastery of the camera and light, Ritts captured the beauty in every one of them.”
For a sneak peek at what you’ll see at MFA’s Herb Ritts exhibit, click through the slideshow above.