“Sometimes people have trouble with the context of why a picture is taken. Whether you take it for Vogue or for the GAP or for yourself matters little to me. -Herb Ritts

A circumstance of birth was a happy player at the beginning of Herb Ritt’s life and would carry him onto a stellar career in photography and director of music videos. Ritts grew up in Brentwood a suburb of Los Angeles. His next door neighbor was Steve McQueen. From an early time, Herb was around high-profile people. He became comfortable being around and with them. This confidence would become key to his later success.

Richard Gere, Burt Reynolds, The Doobie Brothers and more

Herb Ritts bought his first camera, a 35mm Miranda for $152.00 in 1976. He photographed his friend, Richard Gere on a road trip. These photos would launch both of the friend’s careers when they were published in Vogue, Mademoiselle and Esquire. Ritts’ first national magazine cover was for the July 1978 issue of After Dark. His subject was the then most popular actor in the world, Burt Reynolds.

Herb Ritts photographed by Richard Gere
Herb Ritts photographed by Richard Gere

1979 saw Ritts making publicity photographs for the Doobie Brother and fashion for Italian Bazaar. He shot the cover for the album Physical by Olivia Newton-John.

The 1980s

Ritts meets and photographs Madonna on the set of Desperately Seeking Susan. Madonna remembers:

In his sweet disarming way he suggested that we work together again and I agreed to it. And that was the beginning of an incredibly long and fruitful working relationship, but it was also the beginning of a great friendship.

He photographed Madonna’s wedding to actor Sean Penn.

When I look at this picture, I remember the day so well. It was the day Madonna married Sean Penn and in this shot you see that little Italian girl with those big eyes and such a vulnerable, scared feeling. That is the other Madonna.

He created the image for the cover of Madonna’s album True Blue in 1986. In 1989 he directed her music video Cherish shot in Malibu, CA.

Besides working closely with Madonna, Herb Ritts photographed for Tatler Magazine, Gap Work Force, North Beach Leather and shot Glenn Close and Michael Douglas, stars of Fatal Attraction for the cover of Time. He published the book Pictures, a look at 80s pop culture. He lensed Cindy Crawford for Playboy, shot Naomi Campbell and a campaign for Valentino. For Rolling Stone, he makes the now iconic photo of Stephanie Seymour, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Tatjana Patriz and Naomi Campbell on the porch of his home. His image displays beauty, elegance and the women who would come to embody the term “supermodel.”

In 1989, Herb Ritts is diagnosed as HIV positive.

The 1990s

Herb Ritts continued working throughout the ’90s. His clients include Versace, Joop Perfume, Calvin Klein Underwear, the 1994 & 1999 Pirelli Calendars, Absolut Vodka and Victoria’s Secret. He directed Isabella Rossellini in a commercial for Lancômes Rouge Absolute. He directed music videos for Janet Jackson, Chris Isaak, Michael Jackson, Bon Jovi, Toni Braxton and Mariah Carey. Two of his videos won 1991 MTV Video awards.

His work appeared in magazines including Interview, Rolling Stone, People, Vanity Fair and the inaugural issue of John F. Kennedy Jr’s George. He made portraits of world leaders — Nelson Mandela, Mikhail Gorbachev and Bill Clinton among them. He appeared on numerous television shows like Today, Entertainment Tonight, First Person with Maria Shriver and the Arsenio Hall show.

He also has several exhibitions of his work.

The 2000s

Herb Ritts directed more music videos in the early 2000s for Tracy Chapman, Britney Spears, Shakira and Jennifer Lopez. He photographed Penélope Cruz for the cover of Vogue, shot campaigns for Ralph Lauren. In December of 2002, he was working on location at El Mirage Lake in California when a sandstorm blew through the set, sickening several members of the crew.

Herb Ritts died of complications of pneumonia on December 26, 2002. He was 50 years old. His publicist announced his death:

Herb was HIV-positive, but this particular pneumonia was not PCP (pneumocystis pneumonia), a common opportunistic infection of AIDS. But at the end of the day, his immune system was compromised.

The Herb Ritts Foundation was created in 2003 following his wishes to advance the art of photography and to support HIV/AIDs in the spirit in which he lived.

Thanks to HerbRitts.com for the timeline of his accomplishments and photographs shown in this installment of On Photography.

Read about other influential photographers on Photofocus.