Getting to the Getty: Herb Ritts and the Cult of Celebrity

One of my first freelance copy-editing assignments at The Hollywood Reporter was to edit a column that actor Richard Gere wrote about the iconic image of him in front of a broken-down car shot by photographer Herb Ritts.

There’s a very real reason why Herb was on top of everyone’s list of still photographers. He captured something in his subjects — an essential quality. We recognize ourselves. He had a warmth in his photographs that everyone liked.

The remembrance ran in advance of the “Herb Ritts L.A. Style” photography exhibit at the Getty Museum, which has recently been extended to Sept. 2. Even if you haven’t heard Ritts’ name, you would recognize much of his work in fashion spreads and commercials in the 1980s and ’90s.

Kenley and I hadn’t been to the Getty Center yet, so I put the exhibit on our to-do list. And when we finally had a free Saturday together, we decided to have brunch and then go to the museum, which sits atop a hill in West Los Angeles, just north of Sunset Boulevard.

For brunch beforehand, we returned to 26 Beach in Venice, where about a month earlier we’d sampled the restaurant’s over-the-top hamburger creations. During that initial visit, we’d also gotten a glimpse of the brunch menu, in which they give a similar extravagant touch to french toast — one of my favorites. That was our goal this time around.

There are at least 20 different types of french toast on the menu, including s’mores, chocolate explosion (made with chocolate bread custard) and polar bear (made with croissants and topped with ice cream).

Kenley ordered the Reese’s Pieces version, which actually has Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups melted between the slices of battered bread. I resisted the more tempting concoctions and chose the very berry.

(If you go to 26 Beach, be sure to make reservations several days in advance, as there’s always a group waiting on the sidewalk outside … and even if you have reservations, you still might have to wait a while.)

Later that day, we drove up the 405, parked at the foot of the hill and took the tram up to the Getty. (Parking is $10 after 5 p.m.; $15 before.) We arrived just as the sun was starting to set, casting a warm, pink glow on the gardens and the smoggy city below. We spent some time exploring the public spaces and look-outs surrounding the buildings. Many couples and some families had brought blankets and had claimed spots on the grass to watch the sunset. Kenley says it’s hard to believe this first photo of the garden isn’t a painting itself:

Kenley and I grabbed a snack at one of the outdoor carts before heading into the museum. (If you’re planning on dinner, note that the cafe closes at 6 p.m. A more formal restaurant stays open for dinner during summer.)

The Getty’s permanent collection is pretty overwhelming — and impressive. We started on the upper level of the West Pavilion, which features paintings after 1800, including works from Monet, Van Gogh and Degas. We then worked our way back in time as we wandered through the upper levels of the South and East pavilions, which feature paintings from 1600 to 1800.

I especially liked how the Getty curator placed Monet’s “Study of Light” under an actual skylight so that the natural light crossed the painting in much the same way the sun would have crossed the Rouen Cathedral in France.

The museum also features sculpture, decorative arts and manuscripts on the lower level.

With about an hour before the museum was to close at 9 p.m., we hurried back to the Center for Photographs in the West Pavilion to see the Ritts’ exhibit and the accompanying “Portraits of Renown: Photography and the Cult of Celebrity.”

Ritts is known for his nude photography of celebrities as well as athletes and dancers. He brought an artistic eye to fashion spreads and commercial work, including music videos. It was the age of MTV, after all.

We’d jumped forward several centuries, from the paintings of the 1600s to the photography of the 1990s, and the contrast of the older, modest, religious-themed art with today’s much more aggressive, secular art was palpable.

And while a lot of art throughout time celebrates the human body, it was striking to see how bodies have gone from soft and voluptuous to slim, firm and muscular — and how perceptions of health and beauty have changed over time.

One room of the exhibit focused on Ritts’ commercial work, which included a set of nudes of Olympic athletes he shot for a campaign for Tag Heuer. Kenley noted a photo of swimmer and six-time gold-medalist Amy Van Dyken, who worked as one of’s Olympic correspondents.

Music videos that Ritts had directed were playing on loop in another room. How could you forget Madonna’s “Cherish,” Janet Jackson’s “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” and Chris Issac’s “Wicked Game”? It was easy to recognize the sexy vibe they all shared.

The accompanying “Cult of Celebrity” exhibit provided context to the Ritts exhibit — showcasing how photography, from its inception, was used to capture images of wealthy and famous people. One of my favorites was a portrait of the Obamas in their Chicago apartment, taken by Mariana Cook in 1996 as part of  a project on American couples. They look young and earnest.

Source: via Shelley on Pinterest

“There is a strong possibility that Barack will pursue a political career, although it’s unclear. There is a little tension with that. I’m very wary of politics. I think he’s too much of a good guy for the kind of brutality, the skepticism,” Michelle Obama said when the photo was taken in 1996. Read more

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