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Herb Ritts: a life in focus: the celebrities he photographed so flawlessly remember the warmth of the friend they knew. (culture).

"I think the fact that I was comfortable and happy and enjoyed what I was doing in my personal life encouraged me," said openly gay Los Angeles-based photographer Herb Ritts in his 1996 Advocate cover story interview. The wildly successful and prolific Ritts was best known for his iconic images of music, fashion, and screen icons, including Madonna and Janet Jackson. He also produced some of the most important homoerotic images of the the '90s, including a Vanity Fair cover of Cindy Crawford shaving k.d. lang and his hot shot of actor Mark Wahlberg in Calvin Klein briefs.

Ritts, 50, died unexpectedly from complications of pneumonia on December 26 at the University of California, Los Angeles, Medical Center--days afar shooting his last celebrity portrait, of actor Ben Affleck, for the cover of Vanity Fair. A small, private service was held for family and friends December 28 in Los Angeles, and a public memorial was being planned at press time. Ritts is mourned by his partner of seven years, entertainment lawyer Erik Hyman; the couple had just finished remodeling their Los Angeles home.

Publicist Stephen Huvane, a close friend of Ritts's, confirms that the photographer was HIV-positive but noted that the pneumonia was not pneumocystis pneumonia, the type usually associated with HIV. Ritts "had been living with HIV for many years," Huvane said, "and at the end of the day, his immune system was compromised."

Ritts, a California native born in 1952, had become one of the most significant pop culture photographers of our time. Known for his neoclassicism and clean black-and-white aesthetic, Ritts captured a sensual, serene inner beauty that seemed to elevate his subjects to mythic status. He also had a genius for being in the right place at the right time: Ritts famously found himself launched in the late '70s after editors saw his impromptu photos of a friend--Richard Gere. Ritts's celebrity subjects would eventually include the hottest of the hot: Tom Cruise, Naomi Campbell, Michael Jackson, Jack Nicholson.

According to Academy Award-winning actor Helen Hunt, it was Ritts's warmth, not just his talent, that allowed him to be so intimate with his subjects. "I remember showing up [to our first shoot] and being met with such sweetness, no ego, real kindness," Hunt says. "He wanted to make sure my dog was close by because he could tell that made me happy. I brought my mother, who is a photographer, and he took the time to explain what he was doing [to her]. I learned that working with that sort of kindness means the world to me."

Emmy-winning actor Jennifer Aniston recalls her first shoot with Ritts: "I was in the makeup chair, and he came over to me and made me feel so at ease. He showed me some pictures he had just taken that week, and he was beaming with pride. I remember thinking how wonderful it was to see such an accomplished artist still show so much enthusiasm for their work. The shoot turned out to be one of my favorites. At the end he walked me to my car, and we just chatted about life, and I knew that I had made a new friend. He will be sorely missed but always appreciated."

Ingrid Sischy, editor in chief of Interview magazine, mourns the loss of her friend and collaborator: "When Herb Ritts died, the world lost not only a dedicated democratic chronicler of contemporary culture but also one of the nicest guys in the world." But, she adds, "underneath that laid-back California style was real ambition. He wanted to capture our zeitgeist--not just with portraits of celebrities but also pictures of people who moved our world forward. I remember, for instance, when he photographed Stephen Hawking for Interview and also when he shot Iris Murdoch for us. On both occasions he called me up afterward and was so moved, he said, `Please keep sending me subjects like these.'"

After Ritts came out publicly on the landmark 1993 NBC special The Gay '90s, he began hearing from gay teenagers. "It's not that I'm naive, but when it's not in your realm and you suddenly get one of these letters, you realize how important it is that there be encouragement for gay people," Ritts said. "I don't really consider myself a role model, but just being comfortable with what you do and what you are can be useful."

Huvane emphasizes that Ritts inspired by example: "He was a man who was comfortable in his own skin, and I think the more people we see who conduct creative, fruitful lives with little or no drama or fanfare, the more people will say, `I can be that way. I can be happy.'"

Ritts seemed to enjoy his 50 years to the fullest, and he leaves behind a substantial body of almost heartbreakingly beautiful images. "After all the great pictures that he had done, he was still in love with his work," says Sischy. "Think of the pictures he still had left to take. What a loss."

Che is author of Deborah Harry: Platinum Blonde. Kaye is a freelance writer-producer in Los Angeles.
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Article Details
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Author:Kaye, Lori
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Obituary
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 4, 2003
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