The Beautiful People

Herb Ritts’ singular aesthetic focus

A roomful of beautiful men in black and white makes any trek to DUMBO worth the trip, and Wessel + O’Connor has assembled a striking show of Herb Ritts’ photographs from 1984 to 1995. Ritts—known for his fashion and editorial work, films, and videos, as well as for being a celebrity favorite portraitist, especially of Madonna’s—gives us a peek into his more personal and private life in this show. These images of bodybuilders, circus performers, models, and friends—whether nude, caked with mud, or bathed in sunlight—capture his vision of the idealized male.

Forty-two photographs are shown here and together they create an atmosphere of times gone by—the ‘80s and ‘90s—of beauty, glamour, and the glitter of a Hollywood we have heard about. With his premature death in 2002 and the rise of the new Realist photographers like Jack Pierson and Nan Goldin who showed us the gritty underbelly of glamour, there seems to be a parenthesis around Ritts’ vision. Recalling the work of other photographers—including the nudes of George Platt Lynes, the Americana of Dorothea Lange, and the classically lit sexuality of Mapplethorpe, these images remind us what a beautiful image the male body can be. By using the same coding that fashion does to create an unattainable desire to be perfect, emotionally he creates the reverse, showing how imperfect we are, how we will never be one of the beautiful people. His are images of fantasy, which is how pornography works—but without a hard on.

Yes, Ritts is a master of his craft, but for some reason I can never get past the objectification of the subject. As an art object you couldn’t find a more desirable commodity; just in the the beauty of the silver and platinum prints alone he creates a warmth that is undeniable, but I don’t really think these images are about the person in the photographs. They seem to remain on a formal aesthetics level and sometimes that is enough to hold our gaze. Everything of value doesn’t have to be about pain and transgression.

When he photographs his models against a white anonymous background it works in his favor to decontextiulize the body and make us aware of the skin tones, the sculptured bodies where hair, sweat, and shape become the detail and subject of the photograph. His location shots—in Hollywood, Morocco, or Paradise Cove—read like a travelogue of his worldly, glamorous lifestyle and have less to do with the model than with him being at the location. This is distracting and makes the photos look like the product of another stylized fashion shoot. But these photos are also stunning.

In his lifetime, Ritts was surrounded by beautiful people, and he was photographing his world. This makes these photographs authentic, honest, and personal. A nice glimpse into a world where everything appears gorgeous.

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