Creative Profile: A Modern Master

It was a shocking setup for an aging actress, and the perfume commercial easily could have been a disaster: At an outdoor cinema in Italy, the Elizabeth Taylor of 2002 watches the Elizabeth Taylor of 1951, at the height of her youth and beauty, doing a love scene with Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun. Few celebrities would brave such an unflinching comparison. But the camera does reveal the current Taylor in close-up, and she looks beautiful—she has white hair but the same face, and her gaze is filled with radiance and grace. “Inspired by love,” the voiceover says. “Forever Elizabeth.”

The indefinable magic of the commercial—its softness and tenderness—comes from its director, Herb Ritts, who died Dec. 27 at age 50. Known as a celebrity photog rapher, he truly was the ’90s icon man—so many of his images (Cindy Crawford shaving k.d. lang for Vanity Fair, the Donna Karan woman) gained cultural currency. A Michel an gelo for the Gap era, he played with age, race and gender, mixed a genius for pop imagery with a classical aesthetic and brought a starry-eyed optimism to every project he touched.

Perhaps what was most modern about Ritts is that he never made distinctions between high and low: advertising, magazine covers, fashion editorial, music videos and fine-art portraiture all interested him, and he often used the same favorite subjects in each.

Indeed, the Taylor spot seems so intimate because Ritts had photo graphed her over time. (Taylor so trusted Ritts that she allowed him to shoot her while she was recovering from brain surgery, and the resulting portrait became one of his most renowned.) “Elizabeth requested Herb,” says Jeff Goodby of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, which handles Forever Elizabeth. “It was really mostly about her mood and comfort.”

To answer critics who dismissed his work as superficial, Ritts once told an interviewer, “Sometimes people have trouble with the context of why a picture is taken. Whether you take it for Vogue or for the Gap, like Dizzy Gillespie, or for yourself matters little to me. … No matter why you are there in front of a subject, you are still given the opportunity to create an image at that moment that will affect people.”

He grew up in L.A., next door to Steve McQueen, and so was never terribly impressed or intimidated by celebrity. His wealthy family also had homes in Malibu and Catalina Island. Certainly, his attraction to natural elements—the sense of freedom, light, sky and open spaces in many of his pictures—comes from growing up as an Eagle Scout in these airy settings.

He photographed nudes as though the bodies were marble. He was attracted to athletes and dancers—it was the form, the strength and line of the body that mattered, not gender or skin color. (Ritts’ award-winning Janet Jackson video, for one, with its love of the human figure, introduced crossover notions of beauty way before the current celebration of Halle Berry.) He shot an eye-popping series of athletes, all major muscles and form, for watchmaker Tag Heuer. In a 1992 spot for Levi’s Loose Jeans, he showed muscled black and white men on an island, some nearly nude, some in big boots and jeans, having a tug of war. In the early ’90s, much of his work had a frankly gay aesthetic that went mainstream. (“I’ve always been comfortable with being gay,” he said in 1999. “I think knowing people by their first names, not by what they do sexually, is what it’s all about.”)

All these elements came together in Ritts’ famed 1992 underwear campaign for Calvin Klein with Marky Mark (who later morphed into actor Mark Wahlberg). In the poster, Mr. Mark wears only a backward baseball cap, a smirk and white boxers, and he tugs at his crotch. The ad was not as shocking as it seemed at first glance. It made contextual sense. Wahlberg had rapped onstage with his pants at half-mast, showing his Calvins, and he was also a complete crossover figure: a white guy borrowing from black rappers, a straight guy who attracted a huge gay following. The full-frontal blatancy matched Marky’s persona exactly, and the ad had an organic visual energy and a directness that connected. (It was subsequently stolen from bus shelters.) Ritts’ last cover for Rolling Stone, the current issue, features pop star Justin Timberlake in a similar pose. There’s no sneer or crotch-holding, but that tells us something about this more manufactured decade.

To hear him tell it, Ritts just happened into photography as a career. He went to Bard College and studied economics, “because I had a good business sense,” he said, then returned to California and worked in the family furniture business as a salesman. One day in 1979 (and here comes the legendary Richard Gere story), he and the then-unknown actor were driving in the desert and ran out of gas. Ritts had been taking classes in photog ra phy and asked Gere if he could snap a few pictures. The result—Gere, smoking a cigarette, wearing jeans and a white T-shirt showing his muscled arms, surrounded by tires and pumps—had every element of the style Ritts would later be famous for. As Gere’s fame exploded, so did requests for the photos, which led to other assignments.

He claimed his start in directing videos and commercials was also uncalculated. Ritts had done the poster for Desperately Seeking Susan and he became close with Madonna, who urged him to do a video for her. He went on to film many divas. A series for Equal sweetener featured Lauren Hutton and Raquel Welch, with lighting and makeup and hair seemingly created in heaven. But made here on earth by Ritts.

“He was famous for shooting people who were hard to shoot,” Goodby told me by way of explaining Ritts’ connection with Taylor. Ritts’ subjects knew that in the subtle interchange with his camera, the result would be extraordinary.

Ritts was an artist with a particular affinity for advertising. The pure lines and symmetrical perfection, the eye-pleasing monochromes delivered a high aesthetic that was also quintessentially American.