Herb Ritts and the Cult of the Celebrity Photographer

Man, the 80s and 90s were a heady time for fashion and celebrity.  All you had to do was either be a model or someone who took pictures of models (or rock stars, movie stars, athletes…) and you became so famous that people started equating your work taking pretty pictures of pretty people being pretty with fine art.  At least in Los Angeles in 2012.

Earlier this month, Huffington Post, while writing about her being honored by MOCA, referred to Annie Leibovitz, rather foolishly, as arguably the greatest photographer ever (which it has since changed…thanks to the guffaws of roughly every commenter, ever) and I dismissed it as general Deitchian bullshit in service to the cult of celebrity.  After all, he’s already staged a Dennis Hopper exhibition and has taken up permanent residence in James Franco’s ass.

Is Leibovitz’s photo or Heiden the work of art here?

But then banners started popping up all over LA about the new Herb Ritts: L.A. Style exhibition at The Getty Center (I’ll have more to say about the actual exhibition this weekend) and I started questioning how and why a photographer’s fame became synonymous with his or her art.

This isn’t to say that Leibovitz, or Ritts (or even Hopper in his MOCA exhibition) are bad photographers.  Quite the contrary at least Leibovitz and Ritts.  (I’ll leave you to discuss Hopper’s value as an artist.) As commercial photographers they’re top notch and created aesthetics unique to them that defined their eras and likely influenced/inspired younger photographers.  But does that in and of itself make it “fine” art?  And is that a bad thing, if their work was primarily commercial?

Richard Gere, San Bernardino, 1977 – Herb Ritts

Personally, I think it does them a disservice.  Venue dictates expectations and when I go to a photography exhibit at MOCA or The Getty Center, I’m not expecting to see portraits of Miley Cyrus or Richard Gere.  Their impact is lessened when the copy accompanying the images waxes profound about the slimy octopus on Djimon Hounsou’s head or uses words like architectonic to describe a photo of a model in the desert when geometric would have made more sense.  These same photos in a gallery are better received because they’re not elevated above their contemporaries.

And no matter how nice the images are to look at, by displaying them in museums instead of smaller gallery settings, expectations are raised but not met because the biggest draw is their names and fame and fame of the subjects rather than the work itself.  Which clearly was a pretty big draw for the Ritts exhibition so maybe I’m just talking out of my ass.

Which of these images is “art?”

Anyway, I come here not to bury the celebrity photographer, just to question where his or her rightful place is?  Do people like Leibovitz and Ritts really belong in fine art museums simply by virtue of having been ubiquitous at one time?  How does a photographer elevate his or her work from documenting what’s seen into fine art? And is being commercial really that bad?

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4 Responses to Herb Ritts and the Cult of the Celebrity Photographer

  1. DianaRita says:

    I loved you latest comments, and as usually you still gave me a good laugh out loud with the James Franco comment. I’m looking forward to your thoughts on the actual Ritts exhibition .

  2. laura says:

    Economy of language + deep thoughts + light snark + perspective + milk-through-nose humor = Visceral Response.

    For me, particularly Herb Ritts’ work is definitely in the “design” category rather than “art.” There doesn’t seem to be anything beyond the surface sheen. What is the dialogue between the artist and world through his work, and what is our corresponding commentary about it? To me, these questions make no sense because the work exists in a realm of pure design.

    And to be even more of a jerk, I’ll say this: just try an afternoon looking at first Leni Riefenstahl’s work and then Herb Ritts’ ouevre, and just see if you don’t have an uneasy feeling at his photographs forever after. Did I just suggest Ritts had a Nazi aesthetic? I believe I did.

    • Dina says:

      Yes, Riefenstahl. It is hard to unsee it once you see it. (And I was trying to remember who first pointed me in that direction….)

      “Design” is a good way to define his work because there’s a lot of superficial beauty but little life to his work. Still, even if it makes more sense in that context, I still think “architectonic” was the most ridiculous word I’ve ever seen in one of these exhibitions.

      For some reason, none of the many, many Walker Evans photos I’ve seen at The Getty ever mentioned octopi or “architectonic” in explaining/”contextualizing” his images.

      • DianaRita says:

        One of the reasons I like checking out Viseral Response is because thanks to the google I always learn something from both Dina, and the others who respond. This week it was googling the pictures of Riefenstahl, and Evans, after reading both Dina’s and Laura’s comments.

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