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Herb Ritts Dies

Celebrity photographer dies at fifty

December 27, 2002 12:00 AM ET

Photographer and video director Herb Ritts died on December 26th at the University of California Los Angeles Medical Center of complications from pneumonia; he was fifty. Ritts shot numerous covers for Rolling Stone, including a 1989 shot of Madonna on the beach aiming a camera at the photographer, a 1987 shot of David Bowie epitomizing the cover's one word caption, "Style," and perhaps most famously his take on the Botticelli painting "The Birth of Venus," with Cindy Crawford substituting for the Roman goddess. His last cover for Rolling Stone was for last year's Bob Dylan feature.

Born and raised in southern California, Ritz attended Bard College in upstate New York, studying economics and art history. He returned to California after college. But it wasn't until he began taking informal portraits of friends in the movie industry that Ritts became involved in photography. Among his first photographs were shots of Richard Gere taken on a desert excursion. Through the Seventies and Eighties, Ritts photographed men's and women's fashion for mostly Italian magazines, going on to become one of the most respected and well known celebrity and fashion photographers of the last twenty years. He shot covers for top fashion and culture magazines including Interview, Harper's Bazaar, Vogue and Elle and ads for top designers Donna Karan, Calvin Klein and Giorgio Armani. Ritts has also photographed political and cultural leaders including Ronald Reagan, Stephen Hawking and the Dalai Lama.

Central to Ritts' work was a celebration of the human body. Among Ritts' most well known photographs are his shots of Massai people in Africa (captured in his 1994 book, Africa) and his view of the male and female body (Men/Women, 1989). His shots of dancer Bill T. Jones and a former Mr. Universe photographed with his gay partner combined his fame for portraits of cultural figures and his interest in the strength of the human body.

Critic and Interview Editor-in-Chief Ingrid Sischy once said that to create Ritts' images, "you have to be savvy on all fronts . . . you have to be a diplomat, a psychologist, a playmate, and a great persuader . . . Because he has such a natural grasp of [all this], as well as of all the technical aspects, Ritts can pull off the equivalent of miracles -- photographs that become icons."

Ritts also directed television commercials and music videos, among the most famous, Madonna's "Cherish" and Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game." Most recently he worked on Shakira's "Underneath Your Clothes," 'N Sync's "Gone" and Britney Spears' "Don't Let Me Be the Last to Know."

Ritts is survived by his partner, Erik Hyman, his mother, Shirley Ritts, his sister, Christy Thrasher and his brother, Rory.

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