Anyone who came of age in the 1980s or 1990s is aware of the work of Herb Ritts. It’s no exaggeration to say thatRitts’ photographs shaped the pop culture of the time: He shot Olivia Newton-John’s Physical album cover in 1981; five years later, he had Madonna copy Newton-John’s pose for True Blue. He made the era of the supermodel official with his black-and-white portrait—all in the nude, limbs entwined—of Cindy, Naomi, Christy, Linda and Tatjana. (Last names not required.) In the early ‘90s, he ushered two other supers into the club, shooting Kate Moss with Mark Wahlberg for the iconic Calvin Klein underwear campaign, and casting Helena Christensen in the sultry video for Chris Isaak’s song “Wicked Game.”
And so on, and on and on. Ritts’ work, both commercial and editorial, was widely seen and hugely influential. Among fashion folk, it’s canonical—which makes the current exhibition, Herb Ritts, now on at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, a must-view. The show revisits the first major retrospective of his oeuvre, which opened at the same museum in 1996. That remains one of the MFA’s most successful shows.
Many of Ritts’ most formally ambitious photographs came out of fashion shoots. The campaigns he shot for Valentino in the mid-1990s are paradigmatic of his style, featuring his signature black-and-white chiaroscuro and sculptural take on the human form. (The human forms in this case belonging to Tatjana Patitz, or Christy Turlington, right at the top of her game.) Another signature Ritts move? The muscular male nudes posed alongside the supermodels, like demigods worshipping Venus. Ritts had a way of exalting his subjects, going beyond mere glamour to reach the mythic. It’s no surprise that his photographs remain iconic: They were meant to be so, in every sense of the word.
Herb Ritts is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, through November 8th.