The beauty of women has been the subject of art and photography ever since anyone can care to remember, but the beauty of man hasn't been as prominently advertised. Even when photography became more accessible to media, women almost always took the role of the subject. It wasn't until the 1980s when photographer Herb Ritts began his groundbreaking work that the male model would earn a regular role in the fashion and advertising industry.
Herb Ritts was one of the most popular fashion and glamour photographers in 1980s and 90s. He became famous for his sensual black and white photographs that were inspired by the classical depictions of beauty in Greek art. Although he included women in his extensive catalogue of works, it's his daring photographs of the male form, often times nude, that really sets him apart above everyone else.
Ritts got his start in the industry when he photographed his friend Richard Gere, then an aspiring actor, for some publicity shots. They were supposed to go out to the desert nearby, but a flat tire forced them into a garage. Ritts tried a few shots in the unconventional setting, and the resulting above image became very popular with many publications.
Ritts' career steadily grew from there as he earned commissions from both celebrities and fashion magazines. By the late 1980s, he was highly sought after by many magazines including Rolling Stone, Vogue, Vanity Fair, Time, and the like. His style of photography also lent itself naturally to advertising work for many fashion houses like Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Lacoste, Levi's, and many others.
During Ritts' career, the role of the female model was already firmly established. However, even with the advent of numerous fashion publications and better photographic equipment, the career of the male model wasn't as recognized. Indeed, the only males to be prominently displayed in print ads were usually Hollywood stars and celebrities, and if it were a nameless personality, they were more likely to be suited up for the role of the stereotypical American office worker or family man.
Among the images created by Ritts, it was the picture entitled Fred with Tires that really jump started the male modeling industry. The image (the first one in this post) show an impossibly muscular and barechested youth clad only with loose fitting jeans holding a couple of tires, twisting his torso to face the viewer. The machismo setting of the garage completes the effect
The now famous image came from an assignment for the discontinued Per Lui magazine. It was a daring decision to print the image of pure homoeroticism back then, and even now it still attracts some attention, but it paved the way for male celebrities in their underwear that is now common place.
Ritts was also very popular among the celebrities of his time. Many stars liked working for him as he had a way of making the subjects relaxed and feel good about themselves. With Ritts, celebrities knew that their picture would turn out well, and it showed every time.
This commitment to professionalism and his obvious talent meant that many stars would work with him on several occasions. For example, Ritt's photographed Madonna even before she was widely known, and throughout her rise to fame, both of them would work together on many different projects.
Ritts also delved into the music and commercial video industry. From the late 1980s up to his death in 2002, he directed numerous commercials for a variety of brands. He also directed music videos for artists including Madonna, Michael Jackson, Jon Bon Jovi and Mariah Carey.
Looking back at his portfolio today, it's easy to identify Ritts' works; portraits and studies that had strong contrast and simple forms. His work emphasized the natural contours of the human body, but displayed them in such a way that they became art.
Ritt's work can be simplified by stating that he took beautiful photos of beautiful people, but it was more than that. Throughout his career, he redefined what beauty and sensuality was in modern photography, and he played a strong hand in breaking the barrier for the male model in mainstream media. Through his works, he upheld the belief that the human body, especially that of the male, should not only be employed in advertising and art, but moreover be celebrated.
The beauty of man as a whole and as individuals wouldn't be the same without Herb Ritts. His official website has more information on this great artist. If you're interested in seeing more of his photographs, Herb Ritts (Fotografie Portfolio) contains many of his famous fashion and editorial works. His beautiful nudes of both men and women are highlighted in Herb Ritts: Work. Those who wish to get to know more about the life of this influential photographer should get Herb Ritts: The Golden Hour.