Wait…is that a Janet Jackson video?
Seriously. I asked myself that question as I wandered through the Herb Ritts: LA. Style exhibition at the Getty. And yet, there was no escaping it. That not only was a Janet Jackson video (Love Will Never Do Without You) but the gallery showing the videos (I’ll assume Cherish and Wicked Game were also showing, I just missed being aghast at them. Sorry, Chris and Madge.) was packed. So people could watch music videos. This is what happens when MTV just drops the M from its name.
But this pretty much set the tone for the exhibition. It wasn’t a fine art exhibit. It was a retrospective on a very successful celebrity/commercial photographer and highlighting his greatest hits. It was both exactly what I unfortunately expected and strangely illuminating in ways I don’t think anyone involved realized. Hell, I hadn’t even realized it until I looked closely enough. Herb Ritts didn’t give a shit about the people he was photographing. They could have been Bobo dolls for all the humanity he brought out in them. Most of them didn’t even have faces.
Is that really the best way to memorialize Jackie Joyner-Kersee? Can you even tell that’s Jackie Joyner-Kersee since he cut her head out of the photo? I know at her peak she was physically amazing, but can’t she also still be a full person with a head? Would his vision be compromised if we could see the laser focus in her eyes or the set of her square jaw when she competed? Because her face, awkward, androgynous and oddly sweet when she smiled, was as memorable about her as her impressive thighs.
And it wasn’t just women and athletes, or women athletes, that he negated. Even his “muse” Tony Ward was reduced to the sum of his muscular parts. Although, things didn’t get any more engaging when he did feature Ward’s face, since he went with the most dead-eyed stare he could pull out of Tony:
And yet there it was. Photo after photo of models and famous people being utterly objectified and stripped of their humanity in service of looking like human statues, all glossy, smooth and shiny, but with no life. To say it was disconcerting is to understate it. But what really chapped me was his portrait of Spanish film star and bon vivant, Rossy de Palma:
I wanted to include a photo of how I remember Rossy looking at the time, because I never thought she looked like Jesus. And yet he took that crazy amazing face of hers, covered it in shadows, and made her look like a religious icon. That’s criminal. The woman on the right will show you a good time all around Spain, but the woman on the left? Dead.
I remember being a fan of Ritts when he was at his most famous. Because there was a surface prettiness to his work that individually, or in a small fashion layout, never showed how little he seemed to care about the people with whom he was working. But when viewed all at once, and with nothing but the superficial to recommend his work, the dehumanizing effect becomes overwhelming.
So go see the exhibition if you want to look at just how pretty we thought people should be in the 90s. It’s a very pretty exhibition. But don’t go looking for heart or thought or emotion, because as Willam Belli will tell you, emotions are for ugly people.