Sensuality and the Supers: The Lasting Legacy of Herb Ritts

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T 086-4 Christy and Tatjana 2, Bali, 1986

Hamiltons Gallery's new exhibition celebrates the pioneering fashion photographer responsible for heralding the era of the supermodel

You’ll likely know a Herb Ritts photograph when you see one – they're often black and white, usually taken outside (LA beaches were typically favoured over studios) and always boast a sensual celebration of their subject. That’s not to say that his rightly revered photographs can be reduced to a formula: they remain unfailingly dynamic and surprising even now, 14 years after the American photographer's premature death in 2002. It’s his work with models – soon after known as ‘supermodels’ – in the 1980s and 90s which returns to the spotlight at Hamiltons of London through a new exhibition Herb Ritts: Super, opening today. The exhibition hones in on Ritts’ work with the likes of Cindy, Christy, Claudia and Naomi, to name but a few from the roster of supers who were forever thrilled to have his lens trained on them. Ritts’ aesthetic came to epitomise that certain brand of 90s laid-back LA cool, one which remains entrancing in its ability to be attainable and relatable, yet also the stuff of dreams.

Ritts' impact on the industry has been widely documented. He ignored the accepted boundaries between art and commercial photography, instead seamlessly combining the two to create a captivating new style which was instantly and wildly praised. He was self-taught, and thrust into the foreground of the fashion world in 1979, when the impromptu pictures he took of his friend Richard Gere at an LA petrol station made their way into three international publications all within the same month. Ritts went on to favour clean lines, and looked to classical Greek sculpture for inspiration in his practice, creating images which became welcome punctuations in the accepted tropes of fashion photography.

So unique was his approach that Ritts’ images were unfailingly steeped in authenticity; he loved to shoot in LA's somewhat magical light, which quickly became central to his practice. As Naomi Campbell attests: “You just fall in love with that light… It’s Herb’s light”. It wasn’t only the light that had people enamoured, however. Ritts often forged lasting relationships with his subjects; as his friend and muse Cindy Crawford attests, “Herb saw the best in everyone, so that’s how he photographed you”.

It’s his images of supermodels – they have been labelled “anti-glamour”, though they still manage to radiate an air of luxury in their pared-back effortlessness – which are the focus of Hamiltons’ exhibition. The images are mesmerising: bare-faced supermodels basking in the lapping beach shallows, or Claudia Schiffer with wisps of hair falling in her face and an irreverent string of pearls tumbling down her front. At the time they were rightly lauded for their unassuming approach to fashion photography, while today they remain relevant by tapping into our infinite nostalgia for the 90s. The exhibition is replete with sensuous images; it's bound to leave you awe-struck and inspired by the ever-enduring legacy of Herb Ritts.

Herb Ritts: Super runs until January 27, 2017 at Hamiltons Gallery, London.