Born under the Californian sun into a well-to-do family and with Steve McQueen as his next-door neighbour, Herb Ritts grew up at a time when the cult of the body began to emerge. He took an economics degree from Bard College in upstate New York, studied art history and then began working in his family’s furniture company. He lived a carefree life with no specific plans for the future.

However, a puncture while driving around the desert with his friend Richard Gere in their Buick Le Sabre radically changed Ritts’ life. He took some casual photos of Richard Gere, sweaty in a white singlet, cigarette provocatively in mouth, while he was changing tyres in a garage in San Bernardino and before long the major fashion magazines wanted to employ him.

In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Ritts honed his craft and aesthetics while building a reputation as a celebrity photographer. In 1985 he exhibited his pictures for the first time in the show Working in LA., sponsored by the lifestyle magazine Interview. After this his career took off, with fashion shoots for magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Elle, Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone, and music videos for, among others, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Jennifer Lopez and Chris Isaac. He worked with fashion companies such as Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, Versace and Giorgio Armani, and contributed to international publicity campaigns for Chanel, Lancôme, Revlon and Cartier, always with his trademark stylistic virtuosity. Mixing commercial commissions with portraits, music videos and his own projects, he broke the boundaries of fashion, art and advertising.

The spirit of the time was on his side. There was an emerging fixation with the body and a fashion world inspired by gay culture. Herb Ritts challenged the prevailing conventions about gender, race and sexuality. Inspired by classical forms, he dressed our shared history in contemporary clothing.

With a graphically perfected aesthetics he created his own glamorous universe. Transgressing boundaries, blending male forms and female strength, he created erotic and sensually elegant arrangements. His images may be body-fixated but they are never stereotyped; rather they express a love for form, colour, harmony and light. “I’ve always had a fondness for and innate sensitivity to light, texture, and warmth. I abstract it in my photographs: I like large planes and spaces, areas of texture and light, like deserts or oceans or monumental places,” Ritts explained.

Ritts’ images often contain a sense of humour and a smile – they are tongue-in-cheek and feature unaffected emotions. Reading his comments in his successful book, “Notorious”, one discovers a self-distance and a relaxed approach to the famous people he depicted.

Two days after Christmas Eve 2002, Herb Ritts died from pneumonia at the age of 50. He is remembered as one of the major lifestyle photographers of the ‘80s and ‘90s. He loved people and it shows in his images. “Basically, I fell into photography. I literally bought a little camera and went on vacation and started taking pictures of friends of mine and I guess I had an eye.” is how Ritts explained his success.

This exhibition is a production of Fondazione Forma per la Fotografia, Milan, in association with Herb Ritts’ Foundation. It is curated by Alessandra Mauro. The exhibition is designed by Jessy Heuvelink, Head of Design at J. Lindeberg.