While leafing through my latest issue of Vanity Fair, I sometimes think that for fashion models and celebrities the body is something they wear, as most of us wear a cocktail dress or tux. Their bodies, male bodies in particular, don’t possess the casual, filled-out ease of athletes at rest. The body is just another layer of costuming or personality. Robert Mapplethorpe, who didn’t work in high fashion or advertising, idolized the ripped nude male body, but he didn’t reify it; for all the fetishistic self-awareness in his pictures, Mapplethorpe wanted to dramatize how the human animal, like other animals, fills out its symmetries with brute efficient energy: the body isn’t costuming, it’s the radical thing itself. And great fashion photographers such as Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, even when working on high-toned assignments, managed to squeeze from their subjects something we’d recognize as character.
But most fashion and celebrity photographers are in the statuesque business. It comes with the territory. Herb Ritts, one of the most celebrated glossy-magazine image-makers of his day and subject of a major retrospective at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, made his subjects look handcrafted. He worked for high-end designers like Versace, Calvin Klein, Armani, and Valentino, and his pictures appeared in Vanity Fair, Vogue, GQ, and Rolling Stone. He also shot celebrities and made his own “personal work,” mostly portfolios of male nudes. In his fashion work he observed foundational conventions of the profession. The photographic space had to be as worldless as possible: any suggestion of the actual introduces chance, and chance is a flaw in a controlled reality. Whatever world does appear is an arranged, manipulated one. He also had to stay within a narrow range of what might be considered a beautiful body.
Ritts was born in 1955 and died of AIDS in 2005. He more or less taught himself photography and came to prominence in the 1980s, when supermodels such as Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, and Cindy Crawford, all of whom he photographed plentifully, were defining a new slinky-slouchy magnitude of star power. He crafted an idea of vendible sexiness that had as much to do with the pose and setting as with the actual creature. Never mind that sexiness can never be (not by my measure, anyway) separated from the body-presence that generates it. It’s a kinetic confluence of voice and phrasing, a way of moving or of being silent and still. Consider Timothy Olyphant as Rayland Givens. I knew a woman who said she’d go to bed with Bill Murray in a heartbeat. Some women (forgive my saying so) find Rush Limbaugh sexy. And James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano — feral, lisping, predatory Tony — was irresistible.
Ritts’s male nudes were basalt beefcake idols. In Avedon we can’t help imagining that the subject has just now paused in an action or is just about to initiate an action, but in Ritts stillness is a mineralized absolute. He actually covered his models with clay and black body paint to create the illusion of sculpture, and he loved other kinds of veilings — falling water, fabric, sand. The “personal work,” however, is a caricature of fine art, and even what look to be “natural” moments, brushed by the winds of happenstance, leave nothing to chance. The beady wet grains of sand on one of Ritts’s male nudes — he loved the exaggerated, vascular articulations of the bodybuilder’s physique — look as if they’ve been deposited there, one by one, with tweezers.
For me the best fashion and celebrity photography internalizes some collaborative energy — it can be conspiratorial, combative, suspicious — between the photographer and the subject. The resulting image, theatrical but not monumental, is haunted by risk. But the celebrities Ritts shot highjacked all that energy. Before he took what would become a famous shot of a young Mel Gibson, Ritts asked him to cover his face, as if to conceal or seem chagrined by his handsomeness. But Gibson, a very resourceful actor (forget Braveheart and the Lethal Weapon franchise and recall Mrs. Soffel, Gallipoli, and The Year of Living Dangerously), is simply dialing a different inflection of his vaguely menacing good looks. Both he and the young but already overripe Richard Gere (who posed for Ritts like some hot-rod punk out of Caravaggio) hold the moment and the photographer hostage to their narcissism. Ritts grew up in Brentwood next door to Steve McQueen, so he had an easygoing familiarity with movie stars. He liked to say that he wanted to disclose the “real person” inside celebrities, and I’m sure many people who saw his portraits believed the actors were doing just that. I don’t believe it. I think movie stars know exactly how to craft an identity they can then pretend to make available to an earnest inquirer, especially if the inquirer is an image-maker positioned to increase the celebrity’s fame.
Ritts’s images are arresting. That’s what celebrity photography is required to do — snag our concentration till we turn the page. His glamour pictures have a lot of pictorial juice. He had an exacting and sure touch for hard contrasts — intense, liquid darks carved into granular or creamy lights. His images stop us long enough to feel stunned by the hyperbolic tones and poses. In an image of Naomi Campbell wrapped in a Versace veiled dress swept back by wind, Ritts turns her body into a wing bone. And Cindy Crawford on a wet beach doing her Gilda impersonation — she ruffles the skirts of her gown and tosses her head just like Rita Hayworth — is a fast-lane thrill.
The narrow gauge of Ritts’s gift becomes evident when you step into the Getty’s adjacent exhibition, Portraits of Renown: Photography and the Cult of Celebrity, an anthology of portraits of the famous from photography’s earliest years up to the Obama years. We’re used to the notion of photography as an instrument that propagates fame and celebrity, but in the 19th Century it was before anything else a way of fixing fame, fastening it to the consciousness of an ever-broadening public. These aren’t all glamour pictures. In Alexander Gardner’s image of Lincoln visiting Union troops near Antietam (the bloodiest battle in American history — over 20,000 casualties in one day) the president looks to be in a state of shock. Has any president ever looked, in the photographic record, so withheld and introspective, so often in mental pain? Whitman never had that problem. In Mathew Brady’s famous 1870 portrait, his self-fashioning as the “Walt” of his poems is fully achieved: the Walter Whitman of the 1840s, a boulevardier who reviewed opera for newspapers, has finally become his poetic self, “one of the roughs.”