Art, high-fashion commerce blur together in ‘Herb Ritts: L.A. Style’.
Herb Ritts was an anomaly in the competitive world of high-fashion photography. Though one of the brightest stars in the 1980s and 1990s, he was based in Los Angeles rather than New York or Paris, where most of his (small) peer group operated. It was one of the things that set him apart, that and his interest in photographs that had the gloss of his commercial work but had aesthetic aspirations as well.
“Herb Ritts: L.A. Style,” which includes 80 examples of his work, is on view at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. Among the works are fashion shoots, celebrity portraits and nudes. Line, volume and texture are constants throughout but are most evident in his male nudes, because there are few if any elements besides flesh over bone and muscle, which he uses to dramatic sculptural effect.Sometimes nudity and celebrity merge, as in the ravishing portraits of dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones and actor Djimon Hounsou. In one, in which only his upper body is visible, Hounsou wears an octopus on his head, its tentacles draped like dreadlocks, the head perched on top with its eye glaring at the viewer. It’s bizarre for sure, but the tonal qualities Ritts teases from a gelatin silver print, which has a range of 12 tones from black to white, are stunning, rivaling the superior platinum print process, which has a tonal range of 60.
Ritts’ celebrity portraits don’t hew to the worshipful literacy of Annie Leibovitz and earlier masters such as Irving Penn and Richard Avedon. The subject’s personality is subsumed to physical details and composition.
Light and dark are the stars in the portraits of basketball greats Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. Johnson holds his face in his hands, partially obscuring it, with eyes closed. And those hands! The sides gleam so brightly, they seem about to erupt in little sparks. Jordan, on the other hand, is completely backlit against a wall of glass, his body a dark silhouette reduced to pure form.