Portraits of Renown features pictures of cultural figures (Rodin, Victor Hugo, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Anna Pavlova, and others) and of political presences such as Mussolini, Hitler, and FDR. Il Duce occupies only a small corner of an image given mostly to the royal vaulted marble hall around him; it’s an image not of a dictator but of dictatorial magnitude. My favorite show-business picture is Lisette Model’s shot of Billie Holiday performing. She looks utterly unaware of the lens, and she looks (as I think she was when performing) both completely inside herself and completely exposed. While giving everything away in song, she was giving nothing away.
But the primo photo of recent months for me is Coy Watson Jr.’s Joe Louis: “The Brown Bomber,” Los Angeles, taken while Louis, a very dangerous 22 years old, was training at L.A.’s Main Street Gym for his 1935 bout with Lee Remage. He’s in a crouch, leading with his right shoulder. The scary but finely contained force is palpable, and the efficiency of Louis’s power isn’t over-defined in his musculature. His body is an image of fearsome energy stilled in a state of grace. ■
Herb Ritts: L.A. Style and Portraits of Renown: Photography and the Cult of Celebrity are on view at the Getty Center in Los Angeles until August 26. 1200 Getty Center Drive; 310-440-7300; getty.edu.