Openly gay fashion and celebrity photographer Herb Ritts died Thursday of complications from pneumonia, at the University of California, Los Angeles, Medical Center, according to his publicist, Stephen Huvane. He was 50.
Ritts, who appeared on the cover of The Advocate in 1996, was famous for his striking, artistic portraits of celebrities such as Madonna, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Dizzy Gillespie. He photographed Christopher Reeve, wired up and immobile in a high-tech wheelchair. In another photograph, Elizabeth Taylor sported a crew cut and the scar resulting from her brain surgery. His work was displayed at studios and museums including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Ritts was born in Los Angeles in 1952 and moved to the East Coast to attend Barnard College, where he studied economics. Chance and personal connections propelled him into the world of celebrity photography in the '70s. He got to know Richard Gere through someone who was dating the actor at the time. A drive in the desert led to a flat tire and an impromptu photo session in a service station. The result was a photo of a steamy Gere in a white vest, his arms over his head and a cigarette dangling from his mouth.
"I can't remember whether I told Richard to put his arms over his head or whether I just clicked when he stretched. And he really smoked a lot. He was like that, a handsome kid and very sexy," Ritts said in an interview for a catalog that accompanied a show at Paris's Fondation Cartier in 2000. At the time, Gere was an unknown. A year later he was a star, and Ritts's photos were being used as publicity shots.
Ritts also directed music videos. In 1991 two of his videos won MTV Awards: best female video, with Janet Jackson, and best male video, with Chris Isaak.
Herb Ritts is survived by his mother, Shirley Ritts; a brother, Rory; a sister, Christy; and his partner, Erik Hyman.