Arts exhibit review

Capturing experience

Works by Herb Ritts on display at the MFA

Herb Ritts has returned to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts for the first time since 1996. The exhibit opened on March 14, and it revisits some of the American fashion photographer’s finest works.

The exhibit opens with a striking photograph of Madonna’s strong and unwavering stare. Madonna and Ritts collaborated frequently, and she reappears throughout the rest of the gallery in other photos. The audience first sees only her eyes though, a simple reminder that our eyes are central to the experience of visual art, because our eyes facilitate the appreciation and creation of beauty. Ritts’ camera was the means by which he immortalized his vision, therefore the piece also suggests that these photographs allow the audience to see the world the way that Ritts did.

Ritts was drawn to clean lines and strong forms, emphasized through his use of black-and-white photography, a style that produces dramatic and striking results. For a large part of his career, Ritts was fascinated with portraying the idealized body, an homage to the ancient Greek’s fascination with the ideal man. His photographs focused on highlighting the human body’s beauty and details, and the monochromatic, gray-hued bodies of his models closely resemble the marble of classical Greek sculpture. Ritts used photography as a “modern interpretation of the antique form,” made especially clear in Tony with Black Face, Profile, Los Angeles, 1986. In this photograph, actor Tony Ward is pictured with dried, cracked clay covering his skin, reminiscent of a decaying and old sculpture that is nonetheless full of grace and stature.

Although Ritts’ photography offers insight into his version of reality, they simultaneously offer an insight into my own. When walking through the gallery, I found myself looking inward, struck by a sense of nostalgia and familiarity.

The height of Ritts’ career came in the ‘80s to the early 2000s, right before his premature death. He played a crucial role in defining the pop culture of that time; his pictures graced the covers of magazines, television screens, and billboard fronts. We have all likely seen one of his works in one place or another without even realizing it. When looking at several specific photographs, I noticed that they felt simultaneously familiar and new to me. Although I can vaguely remember seeing some of these images when I was younger, at that age, my perception and understanding of the world was incredibly different and limited. By seeing these photos again, I realized how much I have changed and matured. These images offer a rich insight into a world that I had certainly lived through but had hardly experienced.

But what made his works so memorable, distinctive, and avant-garde? Herb Ritts was a master at juggling dichotomies. He was a master at using natural light and the resulting shadows to define and emphasize specific contours. With the shining curves of muscles, the reflection from droplets of water, and the clear depths of people’s eyes, he was able to convey both strength and fragility simultaneously. His skill in making the natural feel glamorous redefined the world of fashion photography and put his photos on the line between art and propaganda. For instance, although the image, Versace Dress, Back View, El Mirage, 1990, was created to be an advertisement, it is still undeniably art. Ritts used the curved lines of the model’s billowing dress to draw the eye to the center and focus of the image, the model herself. The dress drapes the woman in a way that mirrors and dramatizes her curves, creating the impression that she is both sturdy and delicate at the same time.

Ritts’ photography captured and immortalized the experience of the ‘90s, allowing some to reminisce, some to rediscover, and others to experience for the first time. These works will be on exhibit to experience until November 8, 2015.