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Herb Ritts Exhibition Curator Paul Martineau on the Photographer's 'Elegant, Lyrical... and Whimsical' Style

The curator of "Herb Ritts: L.A. Style" says the photographer who shot everyone from Madonna to Magic Johnson "was a huge part of exporting this dream of L.A. to the world through his photos."

© Herb Ritts Foundation, courtesy of The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Gift of Herb Ritts Foundation

Striking black and white nudes and iconic portraits of celebrities are drawing crowds at a recently opened photo exhibition of the work of late photographer Herb Ritts, on view at the Getty Center, West Pavillion now, until August 26.

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Ritts' innovative approach to shooting images using natural California sunlight brought him accolades from around the world. His career took off in the 1980s when fashion publications began to recognize his unique ability to capture through his camera lensintimate portraits of everyone from Richard Gere and k.d. lang to supermodels Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell. His editorial work has been printed in Vogue, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and more. National advertising campaigns by Chanel, Calvin Klein, Giorgio Armani, among others also featured his work.

His work was not limited to print projects but also included music videos, starting in 1989 with Madonna’s "Cherish" and continuing through to Shakira's 2002 hit "Underneath Your Clothes."

Although his life was cut short at the age or 50 due to complications from pneumonia in 2002 (Ritts was HIV-positive), his work continues to be celebrated in the fashion, celebrity and photography realm.

THR spoke with associate curator Paul Martineau on what made Ritts' work so powerful and unique.

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The Hollywood Reporter: What was the guiding inspiration for the selections chosen for the show?

Paul Martineau: We wanted to emphasize the fashion and nudes over celebrity. The celebrity portraiture in the show is about compositional strength and emotion of the photo, rather than who is the subject. I tended to choose photos that represented a very elegant and lyrical side to his work, although he could be very whimsical as well.

THR: Do you feel like Ritts' was inherently an L.A. artist?

Martineau: Los Angeles was key to Ritts, particularly in the light here, in the bold contrasts he was able to capture in his work that he would not have been able to attain on the East Coast. And his backgrounds and landscapes that he used, the beach, the desert, the mountains-- there is a love for the sun, sand and sea in his work, the high contrast that the light here creates and his home was Hollywood and so he had a deeper understanding of the business of celebrity.

THR: How does Ritts differ from his photographic predecessors?

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Martineau: He was definitely inspired by the great glamour photographers, [Horst P.] Horst, [Richard] Avedon, but he added another element of the intimate with his celebrity portraiture. His celebrity portraits are still very glamorous but there is something very natural and very free about them as well.

THR: He had an intimacy with his subject, particularly with celebrities.

Martineau: Yes and he was a huge part of exporting this dream of LA, the style and feel of LA to the world through his photos. And while he was influenced and understood the great photographers of the past, he was able to create something that was distinctly his own.

THR: Could you tell us your thoughts regarding specific photos in the show?

Martineau on Gere: This iconic photograph was taken before Ritts even knew he was a photographer. The setting, pose, and lighting all work together to suggest an extreme cool.
 
Magic Johnson: During this shoot, Ritts's studied Johnson's body and facial features and came up with this pyramidal composition. The sitter's form and expression suggests a certain elegance and sensitivity not typically associated with basketball stars.

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Mel Gibson: Ritts was commissioned to photograph Mel Gibson and Tina Turner in their Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome costumes for the cover of Rolling Stone. After the shoot, Ritts asked Gibson to pose for his portrait. Ritts had the actor cover his face with his arms to frame face in a way that helped to intensify his expression.
 
Madonna: This was one of Ritts' early photographs of Madonna during her "boy toy" phase. Ritts and the pop star hit it off famously and she became one of his muses.

Sinead O'Connor: This is a very usual pose for a celebrity portrait. It is really more about form than anything else.

Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles

E-mail: Shannon.Ma@thr.com; Twitter: @HelloShannonM
 

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