According to the Internet, I missed Seth Macfarlane’s song and dance performance, “We Saw Your Boobs,” at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony. Perhaps if I had turned on my television even once during the 85th annual Academy Awards on Sunday, I would have caught it—but why bother, I thought, when I’ll be able to go online tomorrow and capture the entire night in animated GIFs?
I swore off the Oscars in 2011 after sitting through what appeared to be James Franco’s personal bong-rip-induced spirit quest, masquerading as an Academy Awards co-hosting stint. The glitz may still be there, but the glamour that characterized Hollywood’s classic silver screen era appears to be lost today—and as Paul Martineau, Associate Curator of Photography at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles will tell you, that glamour began to fade long before the rise of the Kardashians.
That is what makes the Herb Ritts: L.A. Style exhibition, curated by Martineau and currently on display at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, so uniquely special. Ritts’ photographs of celebrities and supermodels from the 1980s and 1990s embody a sense of glamour and sculptural elegance that even thirty years ago had already become all but absent from the cultural limelight. Today, just over a decade after Ritts’ untimely death at the age of 50 to HIV-related complications, the photographer has begun to garner the recognition he so aptly deserves for bridging the gap between fine art photography and pop culture—for creating the L.A. Style.
Perhaps you have heard of Herb Ritts; perhaps you haven’t, but one thing is for certain: If you left the house at all in the 1980s and 1990s, you ran across his work on several occasions, probably without even realizing it—most likely at the magazine stand in your local supermarket, or perhaps you simply turned on MTV.
The work of Ritts, one of the most prolific celebrity photographers of the 80s and 90s, appeared on the cover of Vogue, Rolling Stone, Interview, Harper’s Bazaar, and Elle—to name a few. He also directed a number of music videos, most notably for Madonna’s “Cherish,” Janet Jackson’s “Love Will Never Do Without You” and Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game,” and television commercials for companies like Calvin Klein and Levi’s.
The revenue from his print and television advertisements, magazine covers and music videos provided Ritts with the financial stability to explore fine art photography as well as commercial work—often simultaneously. Although the Herb Ritts: L.A. Style exhibition does include a selection of Ritts’ commercial hits, the exhibition focuses primarily on his fine art—particularly the engaging black and white studies of the nude figure.
In the 1980s, the era when the Culture of Commercialism began to engulf the elegance and artistry that formerly defined Hollywood, Ritts’ work stood out by hearkening back to the austerity and grace of Classical Greek sculpture, to the mathematically precise tenets of Old Master painters of the Renaissance and Baroque era and to the sensual, explorative portraiture of twentieth-century photographers like Edward Weston.
Using the harsh California sunlight, beaches and deserts as a backdrop for much of his work, Ritts created the style known today as “L.A. Style,” and often played with light and shadow or covered his models in clay to produce a more organic effect. The results are stunning, as evidenced in the 80 original, vintage silver gelatin and platinum prints featured in the exhibition.
“These were the images of my young adulthood,” said Dr. Matthew McLendon, Ringling Museum’s Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art.
“[The exhibition] makes a definitive case that Ritts was not a low art photographer, but one of the greats of his age and one of the few photographers who truly embodied that age. His work raised the level of commercial photography to make us demand more—that, perhaps, is his greatest legacy,” McLendon added.
For those who, like me, miss the fashion, glamour and elegance of a bygone Hollywood era—have heart. It does still exist, immortalized on film and in the work of artists working outside of their time like Herb Ritts.
And yes, Seth Macfarlane: If you visit the exhibition, you will see boobs. Supermodel boobs. Please, do try to contain yourself.
Herb Ritts: L.A. Style will be on display at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art until May 22, 2013. Museum admission is $25, $5 for children 6-17, $20 for seniors; Museum After-Hours on Thursdays, 5-8 p.m.: $10 for adults; children $5.
There are two Gallery Walk & Talks scheduled in the Ulla R. and Arthur F. Searing Wing Galleries of the Museum of Art. Herb Ritts: The Body as Object, Thursday, March 21, 6:00 p.m. and Herb Ritts: A Distinctive Sense of Style, Thursday, April 25, 6:00 p.m. Walk & Talks are free for Members and complimentary with admission to Art After 5.
As part of the Ringling Museum’s Art and a Movie program on Thursday, May 2, 5:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m., Herb Ritts and Prêt-à-Porter (Ready to Wear) will be screened in the Historic Asolo Theater followed by a tour of the exhibition.