Herb Ritts and “The Cult of Celebrity” at the Getty Museum til the 26th August

Edward Steichen
Gloria Swanson, 1924
Gelatin silver print
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Copyright: © Permission Joanna T. Steichen

Herb Ritts
Tatjana, Veiled Head, Joshua Tree, 1988
Platinum print
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Copyright: © Herb Ritts Foundation

There are really glamorous photographs on view at the Getty Museum right now, as it continues the excellent tradition of two simultaneous photography exhibitions, one drawn from the permanent collection and the other, a visiting loan show.  The former, Portraits of Renown: Photography and the Cult of Celebrity, is an elegant and lively overview, almost the entire sweep of the medium’s obsession with the great and the good. It certainly proves that our culture’s paparazzi mentality is not a recent one. The latter is a monographic exhibition, Herb Ritts: L.A. Style, which makes use of the 69 prints acquired by the Museum in August of last year from the photographer’s eponymous foundation. In addition to looking at Ritts’ highly successful and memorable career in fashion photography, it aspires to position Ritts as an artist.

Try as it might, it does not succeed. And, frankly, Portraits of Renown doesn’t help make the case.  That exhibition includes some of photography’s greatest luminaries—Nadar, Brady, Steichen, Stieglitz, Abbott, Ray, Arbus, and Warhol—portraying some of the giants of the past 150 years.  One particularly telling comparison will suffice to “print the picture:” Edward Steichen’s 1930 portrait of Gloria Swanson and Ritt’s Tatjana, Veiled Head, Joshua Tree (1988). Interestingly, Steichen’s image—a celebrity portrait—was produced as commercial work for Vanity Fair magazine, as was so much of Ritts’ work, some for the same publication. The comparison is remarkably “apples to apples,” (alright, despite the fact that the model Tatjana is no Gloria Swanson). The two faces fill the picture plane in extreme close-up (yes, Gloria really was ready for it…), and both women have their face veiled in a sheer, patterned fabric. But notice how Steichen manipulates the pattern of the lace, the motifs framed by the actress’ features (especially note the star-like pattern across her forehead). Steichen’s choice of fabric is more interesting, his composition is more sophisticated (the slight tilt of the head as opposed to Ritts’ full frontal, perfect symmetry). Notice how Steichen captures the intensity of Swanson’s gaze. Intensity. That, in a word, is the difference between the two images and in my opinion, exemplifies the difference between Ritts and those who have made photography an art.

This leitmotif is nowhere better illustrated than in relation to Robert Mapplethorpe, an apt, if obvious comparison. Only six years older, Mapplethorpe died in 1989 from AIDS thirteen years before Ritts succumbed to the same disease in 2002. They both served as society and celebrity portraitists, chronicling the 1980s: Mapplethorpe of the New York culturati and downtown set and Ritts of L.A.’s  Hollywood scene. Both even established foundations shortly before their deaths to promote their legacies and to support HIV/AIDs charitable work. In short, they became (gay) icons for having made iconic images.  And now both figure largely in the collections of the Getty Museum, it having acquired jointly with LACMA a major trove of Mapplethorpe’s work and archive from the artist’s foundation only six months before the Ritts Foundation gift/purchase. (Keep in mind as well that the Getty’s founding collection of photography was assembled by Mapplethorpe’s lover, famed curator and connoisseur Sam Wagstaff, from whom came many of the earlier examples in the Portraits of Renown show.) Visitors to the Getty will have the opportunity themselves to explore Mapplethorpe’s potent imagery in the first exhibition from the recently acquired collection this coming October.

Robert Mapplethorpe
Derrick Cross,1983
Gelatin silver print
Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, New York
© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Let’s return to the question of intensity. Another “apples to apples” comparison will help here. Both photographers were particularly beguiled by the strength and tonal and sculptural qualities of the African-American physique. Compare here, left and right, one of Mapplethorpe’s favorite models, Derrick Cross, from 1983 with one of Ritts’ images of dancer Bill T. Jones from over a decade later. Here we see both subjects from the back, their arms locked behind them, against white backdrops.  The presence of tension, of intensity, and more to the point, deep, raw human sexuality is quite plain in Mapplethorpe’s photograph and lacking in the Ritts.

Herb Ritts
Bill T. Jones VI, Los Angeles, 1995
Gelatin silver print
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Gift of Herb Ritts Foundation
Copyright: © Herb Ritts Foundation

Homoerotic imagery was clearly important to Ritts, and we know he collected extensively in that area (the subject of an interesting essay by James Crump in the exhibition catalogue; see also Pierre Borhan’s impressive survey on this topic, Man to Man: A History of Gay Photography, 2007). So it’s not surprising to find in the show a portrait of gay Olympic-gold medalist diver Greg Louganis from 1987 (see below). Here he is posed in the manner of one of Ritts’ vintage prints à la physique photographer Bruce of Los Angeles. But Bruce did it first and he did it better, as was recently demonstrated in an exhibition at Los Angeles’ Stephen Cohen Gallery. Bruce’s shots exuded sex; Ritts’ do not. Nor do Ritts’ photographs of the male nude have the appealing homoerotic romanticism of Ritts’ other contemporary, Bruce Weber. Yet another, earlier photographic source, the 19th century’s Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden is referenced in Ritts’ Thorne IV, Morocco (1992) series. There a dark-skinned, lithesome young man is set amongst the ruins, all drenched in sepia-toned nostalgia (another from the series, Thorne III, is illustrated in the catalogue, but like quite a few other images therein, was not hung in the show). This example and the Greg Louganis portrait both demonstrate dual issues.

Herb Ritts
Greg Louganis, Hollywood, 1985
Gelatin silver print
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Copyright: © Herb Ritts Foundation

First, Ritt’s perceived reticence, indeed ambivalence, regarding his sexuality and sexual expression is nowhere better illustrated than in the Mimi and Tony series, which depicts a female and male bodybuilding couple. It is difficult to discern the man from the woman in their intertwined poses; their frigid pallor comes across so such that it is difficult not to psychoanalyze it.  This must be understood in the atmosphere of fear those of us remember all too well living in the Age of AIDS, and more personally in light of Ritts’ own diagnosis of HIV/AIDs in 1989. Secondly, Ritts, a noted collector of earlier photography, shows through his many appropriations that the burden of art history weighed far too heavily in his private work which was too often freighted with allusions to past masters. These are the issues that will concern us throughout the exhibition.

Herb Ritts: L.A. Style opens with a strong selection of his celebrity portraits and Vanity Fair and Vogue cover photography. Ritts got his big break shooting for magazines in 1979 and swiftly proceeded on to work with, among others, Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine. One of the photographer’s last magazine covers was Britney Spears for November 2001 Vogue. Included here in the exhibition is not only the finished product, but a print with Mylar sleeve demonstrating how he edited the image, marking up where shadow should be added and contours adjusted. Spears’ cover image was in fact a composite photograph, with an American flag photographed separately, overlaid with the shot of Britney Spears.

The celebrity portraits were perhaps Ritts’ most successful endeavor. His work here, as always, was strong on formal traits; his Sinead O’Conner, Malibu (1990) is a perfect example of the fusion of the depiction of celebrity and artistic intent. This and a terrific, unexpected portrait Jean-Paul Gaultier, Tokyo (1990) come closest to showing Ritts as an artist with a camera. This is perhaps, as exhibition curator Paul Martineau notes, because of his Brentwood upbringing. Ritts brought a comfort level, a familiarity with these denizens of Hollywood. He could move among them as a peer. Working with such culture and film stars as David Hockney, Karl Lagerfeld, Richard Gere, Madonna, and John Travolta, Ritts riffed on the shots of George Hurrell and the Hollywood studio system photography tradition, infusing it with grit and casualness, despite his general tendency to formalism.

Herb Ritts
Djimon with Octopus, Hollywood, 1989
Gelatin silver print
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Gift of Herb Ritts Foundation
Copyright: © Herb Ritts Foundation

In Gaultier’s portrait, we see the bad boy of French fashion only from the back of his blond close-cropped head, only the merest shadow of right profile is indicated. It essentially represents a closed system. Myriad other photographs such as Woman in Sea, Hawaii (1988), rising Ondine-like from the water, her back to the viewer; the disturbing fetal position in Male Nude with Shell II, Hawaii (1988); and the gorgeous Man Holding Shell, Australia (1986), a conch shell obscuring his face, all show Ritts blocking the model’s visage, denying emotion and preventing us from reading any.  In such a manner Ritts keeps his distance…keeps his viewers at arm’s length. One of his most famous—and baroque—images, Djimon with Octopus, Hollywood (1989),  shows the model wearing an octopus headdress-like. He transforms this noble human head into a mask, a cipher for something else. Could these images be symbolic of Ritts’ disengagement from his emotions and sexual passions?

A gallery devoted primarily to his nudes more fully demonstrates Ritts’ ambivalent approach to the human figure and to sexuality. Mainly athletes, dancers and models here, one of Colin Jackson V, Miami (1997) is appealing in his stand-still running pose, black skin against white wall. Another picture of an athlete, Boris Becker IV, Miami (1997), is formally beautiful, nothing but the crown of the tennis player’s head visible. Again, the photographer presents a wall, with no way into the subject. There are series’ of dancers—Pierre and Yuri, whose pose is complex and interesting, and Bill T. Jones (see above)—all of whom, despite their chiseled, sleek nude bodies, exude no sexuality whatsoever. Another photograph of a dancer, Vladimir III, Hollywood (1990), is dressed and posed à la Nijinsky in his most famous role in Afternoon of a Faun. This too suffers, as does Louganis in the Bruce of Los Angeles redux, from a dose too much of art history (Ritts’ major in college).

I could go on—the marmoreal quality of the 1995 Valentino fashion shoot; the lapidary-like Hellenistic wet drapery on many of the models (Tony in White, Hollywood, 1988); the evocation of Dorothea Lange in Fred with Tires, Hollywood (1984)—but the point, I hope, is made. This is not to say that Herb Ritts wasn’t a man of his times, that the show has many interesting and indeed, iconic, pictures, nor that he could not rise to the occasion (as he did as with the warm, sepia tone and challenging pose in Naomi Campbell, Face in Hand, Hollywood, 1990, or Alek Wek, Los Angeles, 1998, which approaches the sensuality and danger of Mapplethorpe). However, in the end, Herb Ritts’ images are beautiful and pleasing to the eye, but cool and empty, like his beloved deserts and beaches.

Andy Warhol
Grace Jones, 1984
Polaroid Polacolor print
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Copyright: © 2011 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Artists Rights
Society (ARS), New York

Portraits of Renown opens with several magnificent daguerreotypes from the beginnings of the medium, most notably the extremely rare portrait of Edgar Allen Poe from 1849. He himself was an advocate of photography, proclaiming it “infinitely more accurate…than any painting by human hands.” There follow early types of photographs and photographic reproductions of “Great Men” such as composer Giaocchino Rossini and Mark Twain.

A stand-out is Alexander Gardner ‘s President Lincoln, United States Headquarters, Army of the Potomac, near Antietam (1862). It is a posed photograph:  Lincoln, conferring with his officers only a month after the single most bloody day of the Civil War. But the president’s face is slightly blurry, with an unfocussed quality. It is accidental, no doubt, but it conveys a man of action in movement, an air of spontaneity, that formal portraits nearby such as Matthew Brady’s of Robert E. Lee (1865) cannot.

The incomparable Edward Steichen—his portrait of Gloria Swanson discussed above, also has in the exhibition the amazing photo-montage (two negatives printed on the same paper) of Rodin—Le Penseur (1902). This large format gelatin-carbon print shows the greatest French sculptor en profil  opposite his most famous creation, The Thinker , as if it were his alter-ego.  Great early 20th-century figures include the commanding yet comedic Josephine Baker;  Alfred Stieglitz’s portrait of his wife Georgia O’Keefe as she is subsumed into her own painting; and a brutal, gestural portrait of Martha Graham by Barbara Morgan as powerful as the bull-like Pablo Picasso captured by Man Ray. A group of political subjects—Franklin Roosevelt, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Hitler and Mussolini—dominate the room as they did the mid-20th century.

One of the greatest moments in the exhibition is one wall with two terrific pairings, the mark of a highly sensitive curatorial eye (in this case, Paul Martineau, the Getty’s Associate Curator of Photographs). Paired with Diane Arbus’ Anderson Hayes Cooper, New York City (1968) is Fred McDarrah’s Robert Mapplethorpe in Bond Street Studio (1979). The former, an eerie, indeed grotesque, baby portrait of today’s suave and popular television personality is seen with McDarrah’s casual portrait of Mapplethorpe holding one of his own baby pictures—a portrait within a portrait—a cogent dialogue between two otherwise unrelated photographs. That there are no portraits by Mapplethorpe himself in the exhibition is due doubtless to the fact that they are being held in reserve for the Getty’s upcoming Mapplethorpe exhibition opening this October.

The 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s are evoked with that particular photographic type of the age—the polaroid (or as I leaned here to call it, the instant color print). Marie Cosindas’ groovy pictures of Yves Saint Laurent and Andy Warhol are joined by the latter’s polaroids of Liza Minelli (1977), Jean-Michel Basquiat (1982), Princess Caroline (1983), and my personal favorite, Grace Jones (1984; see above). These images serve up the flattened compositions and washed-out palette that define Warhol’s famous silk screen portraits for which these polaroids were often taken.

This satisfying exhibition closes as it had opened—with a daguerreotype. But in this case one made in 2000 by renowned contemporary artist Chuck Close, who has revived this lost technique. The photograph is, of all people, Cindy Sherman, just a few months ago the subject of her own major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Here finally is Sherman as Sherman (as she is almost always the subject—in whatever disguise—of her own photographs). The irony is not lost on us; not just that here Sherman poses as herself for her own portrait, but more universally, the truth that portraiture both strips away, and obscures.

One comment

  1. Mitch Snow · · Reply

    Very well argued, Richard. This is an important essay.

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