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Herb Ritts: ‘The camera was an extension of his body’

An exclusive look inside the archives of a photographer whose sumptuous images of rock stars, supermodels and film legends encapsulated an era

As a photographer, said Herb Ritts, ‘you’re trying to get to one moment with one frame that may eventually speak to your generation.’ After shooting close to two million rolls of film before his death in 2002, Ritts did just that, creating some of the most iconic images of his era — for clients including Madonna, Calvin Klein, Vogue and Rolling Stone.

On 6 April, one of Ritts’ most celebrated photographs will be among 25 offered at Christie’s as part of a special auction to benefit the Elton John AIDS Foundation. Described by Sir Elton John as ‘one of the greatest Herb Ritts photographs of all time’, Backflip, Paradise Cove, 1987 captures its subject mid-flight, with the Pacific coast of Ritts’ native California as backdrop. The print that is being offered in our 6 April sale is one that Ritts owned personally and hung in his home.

Herb Ritts (1952–2002), Backflip, Paradise Cove, 1987. Gelatin silver print. Estimate $40,000-60,000. This lot is offered in Photographs including Property Sold to Benefit the Elton John AIDS Foundation on 6 April 2017 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Center

Herb Ritts (1952–2002), Backflip, Paradise Cove, 1987. Gelatin silver print. Estimate: $40,000-60,000. This lot is offered in Photographs including Property Sold to Benefit the Elton John AIDS Foundation on 6 April 2017 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Center

The landscape was one that Ritts returned to throughout his career, along with the expanses of the southern California desert. Seen through a lens, Ritts explained, each could ‘abstract into light and texture and line and shade’ — a quality revealed to striking effect in photographs of German actress and model Tatjana Patitz, photographed in the desert for British Vogue in 1988.

For Mark McKenna, President of the Herb Ritts Foundation, the Vogue images were of a quality comparable to Ritts’ later fine art prints. ‘He wasn’t stuck on it being for the fashion section of British Vogue… he was capturing something that was of beauty to him.’ Ritts himself saw little boundary between his editorial shots and fine art, commenting, ‘I like to push things, even in my commercial work.’

Over the course of his career, Ritts’ approach to photography became almost as legendary as his final images. ‘They talk about a photographer, a shoot and a subject like it’s a dance,’ says McKenna. ‘Herb really did make it like a dance... he wanted people to have fun with the day. He allowed there to be a collaboration between him and the subject; he wanted something fresh and new and innovative.’

The Mamiya Medium Format camera Ritts used for much of his work became, says McKenna, ‘an extension of his body’. In the course of his brief career, Ritts captured images whose impact endures. ‘Each time you click a frame you’re recording something,’ he reflected. 'Sometimes you'll hit on something that will live on.’