Herb Ritts at Fotografiska – an interview with Alessandra Mauro

The 21st of November the exhibition In Full Light opened at Fotografiska in Stockholm. It is another exhibition in a series of fashion photographers being displayed at Fotografiska. Now it is Herb Ritts turn, as one of the most iconic fashion and celebrity photographers during the 80’s and the 90’s. I met the curator, Alessandra Mauro, in the exhibition hall, two hours before the press preview, to talk about photography, celebrity, beauty – and ancient Greek gods.

Alessandra seems incredibly calm when I meet her at 11am in the exhibition hall, even though the team has had some trouble with the lighting just before the exhibition is about to open for the press at 1pm.

–The light is really important, Alessandra explains, especially displaying photography when light is a presumption for the picture.

She seems to trust in her team completely. As we talk, the people around us work without a bother from Alessandra.

The artist, Herb Ritts, is mostly known for his iconic portraits of L.A celebrities such as Madonna, Richard Gere and Cindy Crawford – just to mention a few. He became famous during the 1970-80’s, and was at the top of his career during the 90’s. Mainly working with fashion, advertising and music videos. He is also known for his coherent photographic style. The pictures are black and white, often taken in natural sunlight during the middle of the day, making the play with light and shadows in the pictures very expressive. His motives were often naked bodies in monumental environments such as the dessert, as the very strong light in the pictures highlighting the physicality of the bodies.

It seems like a natural step for Fotografiska to exhibit Herb Ritts. Earlier, the museum has displayed works by renowned fashion photographers such as Irving Penn and Helmut Newton. In Full Light was first exhibited in Rom two years ago, produced by Alessandra Mauro and Forma per la Fotografia in Milano as a collaboration with the Herb Ritts Foundation in L.A.

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Alessandra Mauro is one of Italy’s most established photography curators, working actively for over 20 years. She is currently working at Contrasto, a gallery and a publishing house in Milano. She attends to her works there both as a curator and publisher. She is also teaching, consulting the Vatican in contemporary photography and also attaining international projects as projects all over Italy.

I ask her why she thinks photography has grown so big during the last years
– Well, she says thoughtfully, I think there are many reasons but especially two: First, one economical reason. The art institutions and galleries are suffering from the economical crisis in Europe, especially in Italy. It’s cheaper for museums and galleries to exhibit photography and it’s also easier in a commercial way.

– The other reason, I think is because photography is a modern language. A photo is very instant and we recognize ourselves in photography, it works as a social platform, for example we can se it in social medias such as Instagram. By exhibiting photography we can learn how to use this language, teach the grammar of it and make photography get consistence.

I ask Alessandra to tell me about the exhibition.
She tells me that it is the second time she is creating a solo exhibition with Herb Ritts works; the first time was 14 years ago, when Ritts was still alive.

– When you’re exhibiting Herb Ritts you have to display some iconic pictures – such as the Back flip or the Madonna True Blue Profile pictures – then you can work with different aspects and shades, but without those pictures a Herb Ritts exhibition is impossible.

She explains that the exhibition is organized in four parts.
–The first part focuses on bodies. Bodies are iconic for Ritts and his way of picturing the human body is maybe his greatest contribution to fashion photography, Alessandra says.

– The second part is portraits, also something that is iconic for Ritts. He was portraying famous people in a very unique way, always working with a narrative and a detail that reveals the story of the person.

– The third part is Africa. Ritts grew up in a L.A and was always drawn to the nature – the dessert, the sun and the ocean. Africa became important as an inspiration for his professional career, with it’s clear light and atmosphere.

The fourth part is bodies in motion.
– Ritts brought movement into still pictures. In an evolving way expressing movement into it’s maximum. This part of the exhibition is complemented by a video collage of Herb Ritts music videos.

The name on the exhibition In Full Light, is supposed to put a spotlight on Herb Ritts and to draw attention to his way of working with sharp but natural light, or as Alessandra describes it:
– A cruel light.

When you enter the rather dark exhibition hall you encounter a light wall with the text “IN FULL LIGHT” projected on.

Backflip, Paradise Cove 1987

As I view the exhibition, I believe that there is a connection between a bigger interest for fashion and seeing fashion as art. This has led to a deeper connection between fashion, advertising and the art world. It can be translated into an interest of displaying commercial photography as art, for example Herb Ritts.

I asked Alessandra what her opinion might be;
– I believe that is correct, but I don’t se a contradiction between the commercial and the art world. Artists have to survive, you know. It is more about working with the right tools and sensibility, to find a special way and a style to picturing celebrities for example. Herb had a very distinct expression. He possessed good knowledge about art history and photography and collected contemporary photo himself.

To design the exhibition Alessandra has been working with Jessey Heuvelink, the head designer at J. Lindeberg.
– You learn a lot by working with new people, Alessandra says. And the exhibition is different every time it is displayed. For example, it is Jessey that has chosen the frames and decided the coloring of the walls.

The exhibition is designed with military green walls and frames in light wood that highlight the pictures.

Herb Ritts is famous for the personal connection he had with the celebrities he photographed. He grew up in a wealthy family in L.A and his best friend was Richard Gere. What is his strength in portraying celebrities, if you compare to other photographers in the same field and era, such as Helmut Newton or Irving Penn?
– The portraits are really good in a technical sense as they encounter balance and strength. They visualize a relationship and a special feeling. He was able to capture the deep beauty of every person. He pictured them with pride and made them appear as gods.

Was he important for celebrities?
– He helped them to build their character as famous persons. He captured them in special moments. For example he photographed Christopher Reeve in his wheelchair and made him look like a god, or Elizabeth Taylor a few days after her brain-surgery and still made her look beautiful – like the god of suffering.

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In the exhibition there are quotes by famous people and friends of Herb Ritts written on the floor, such as one of Cindy Crawford:

 “You knew you were going to look gorgeous – the way Herb photographed you was the way you wanted the world to see you”

Or another one by Madonna:

“I got herbified”

Alessandra says:

-Celebrities trusted Herb, because they knew he was going to make them look beautiful. He could get very close to everyone; make them feel comfortable, and let them be who they were, as you can se in the pictures.

Madonna (True Blue Profile), Hollywood 1986

Herb Ritts became famous in time where the norms of gender, race and sexuality were challenged (the 1970-90’s). Why is that important and how is that displayed in his work?
– Herb Ritts way of portraying a female nude and a male nude in the same way – as abstract beautiful elements, is more a celebration of the body. He didn’t had any gender-idea in that sense. But of course, it’s a combination due to each other. He was also one the first photographers to come out as gay.

Was his pictures provocative?
– Provocative but beautiful. They are very classical in their expression; this entitles the provocative elements in them. But most important is that the pictures are expressing beauty.

Was his work important in the struggle of challenging norms?
– To my understanding, Herb was a happy person who loved life. He didn’t encounter a lot of setbacks in his life and therefore avoided making his life story a part of his artistic identity. His pictures are not propaganda, even though he was gay as well as being HIV-positive. He was interested in beauty and wanted to show every person as beautiful as possible.

What are your thoughts on Herb Ritts way to display bodies?
– He portrayed bodies in a very classicist way. Walking trough this exhibition should be a little bit like walking up to Parthenon, you know, with all the statues of ancient Greek gods and goddesses. He is renovating and developing a tradition in fashion photography – but in the California sun.

Do you se any problem in his way of picturing the human body, as idealized and objectifying?
– No, not at all. The pictures are about beauty.

Alek Wek, Los Angeles 1998

The exhibition “In Full Light” is produced by Fondazione per la Fotografia, as a collaboration with Herb Ritts’ Foundation. Curated by Alessandra Mauro, designed by Jessey Heuvelink, head designer at J. Lindeberg.

It will be displayed at Fotografiska in Stockholm 21st of November 2014 – 15th of February 2015.

Herb Ritts was an American fashion photographer, born 1952 in Los Angeles, California. He died 2002, at age 50, of complications from pneumonia, with weakened immune system due causes of HIV.