Is Herb Ritts to photography what William-Adolphe Bouguereau is to painting? A staged, dated and petit bourgeois idea of titillation? Or is he simply a reflection of a particularly artificial period in our recent history that gave us the “Supermodel”?
A period that revered spotless celebrity idols and fashion icons alike. Fabrications of glamour that were part of a political agenda: a non-threatening representation of stability and satisfaction. A construct of Beauty meant to instill a civilising influence.
“All photographs of the body are potentially political, inasmuch as they are used to sway our opinions or influence our actions. In this regard, an advertising image is as political as the most blatant propaganda. So is the supposedly autonomous art object, in so far as it represents fundamental attitudes and values”. William A. Ewing “The Body” Chronicle Books, 1994
Ronald Reagan and later Bush Père glorified the fifties. Herb, the Brentwood preppy, was clearly inspired by fashion photography giants like George Hoyningen-Huene, Horst or John Rawlings. Unlike them, who shot mostly in the studio, he took his subjects outside in the blazing California sun. Thus gracing us with effective images that convey prowess and a glimmer of magic.
But the eighties were not a time we should be sentimental about. Ronald Reagan and his “kitchen cabinet” fostered the mendacity that allows the abject brutality of Donald Trump to exist today.
With nudes, Ritts followed suit. Inspired by California’s supreme sensualist Edward Weston, he also took his beauties outside and mixed them with the “elements”. But, unlike his contemporaries Jock Sturges or Sally Mann, no untoward demonstrations of flesh are to be found. Wrinkles, pouches, objectionable hair, and other imperfections do not disturb us: his beauties are sculptural, chimerical, to be venerated at a distance. “All forms are perfect in the poets mind, but these are not obstructed or compounded from nature, but are from the imagination”. William Blake
“The academic nudes … are lifeless because they no longer embody real human needs and experiences. They are among the hundreds of devalued symbols that encumber the art and architecture of the utilitarian century.” Kenneth Clark “The Nude” Princeton University Press, 1956
But, as beauty is a shield, exalted beauty becomes an armour; Herb Ritts wanted us to be Superheroes. Pain, suffering and death could not touch us. Beyond being a reflection of duplicitous times, Herb Ritts was expressing a sincere, if maladroit, human desire for immortality.
Herb Ritts “En pleine lumière” at Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris until November 30, 2016
All Images ©Herb Ritts Foundation