Recent Gift of 15 Photos Allows MFA to Show Full Story of Ritts’ Career

BOSTON, MA (March 13, 2015)—The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), flashes back to the ‘90s this spring with an evocative exhibition dedicated to the photography of Herb Ritts (1952-2002). Known for his beautifully printed, formally bold and sensual black-and-white images of celebrities and supermodels such as Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell, his works often blurred the line between art and commerce. Throughout the ‘90s, his photography was inescapable in popular culture—appearing everywhere from magazine covers to music videos and commercials. This exhibition revisits the artist, whose groundbreaking 1996 retrospective at the MFA, Herb Ritts: WORK, remains one of the most highly attended exhibitions in Museum history. Nearly 20 years later, the MFA is taking a second look at his career, which was cut short in 2002 with his death from complications related to AIDS. Along with a selection of music videos and commercials, the exhibition features 52 black-and-white photographs that celebrate the sculpted body and the variable beauty of the human face. Ritts’ expert use of natural light results in dramatic images full of high-contrast lights and darks, as well as softer effects, such as light reflecting off water. Of the works on view, 15 are from a recent gift from the Herb Ritts Foundation—acquired by the MFA in December in honor of Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director at the MFA. This, and previous gifts from Ritts and the Foundation dating back to 2000, allow the Museum to tell the full story of Ritts’ career, and comprise the largest museum holdings of Ritts photographs in the world (248 in total). The exhibition is on view in the MFA gallery named in honor of a gift from the Ritts Foundation—the Museum’s first dedicated solely to photography—and the adjacent Clementine Brown Gallery. Media sponsor is Boston magazine. With support from the Benjamin A. Trustman and Julia M. Trustman Fund. 

“Since his 1996 exhibition, Herb and his foundation have had a special relationship with the MFA,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director at the MFA.  “This connection has continued to grow and we are proud to present this celebration of Ritts’ career.”

The exhibition explores every aspect of the photographer’s career, and is divided into two sections: one dedicated to the human body and one dedicated to his photographs of celebrity personalities. His approach to the nude pushed the confines of convention. Ritts captured not only beautiful bodies, but also the environment and elements surrounding his set: the Pacific Ocean, desert landscapes, and mountains. Whether photographing a Versace dress, a basketball star, or interpreting classical sculpture through dried, cracked clay on skin—as in Tony with Black Face, Profile, Los Angeles (1986)—Ritts and his photography embody the era. The predominant aesthetic in Ritts’s images is one of strong lines, bold contours and striking shadows. Today, his work appears in museum exhibitions around the globe.

Preferring to shoot during the golden hours of the day—when the sun is at a low angle—Ritts created works that demonstrate not only an expert use of natural light, but the ability to immortalize the subjects in front of his camera. In addition to photography, he also directed 13 music videos and more than 50 commercials throughout his career.  Exploration of the human figure in its idealized form is a recurring theme in his video work, a selection of which is also included in the exhibition on three video screens. 

Lent by the Herb Ritts Foundation are videos of Madonna’s Cherish (1989), Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game (1991) and commercials dating from 1990–2002. A special MFA playlist on Spotify allows visitors to listen to music as they explore the gallery, and a case of archival materials includes a marked-up contact sheet and magazine spread that shed light on Ritts’ process.

During his career, Ritts forged strong connections with his subjects, many of whom became close friends. Throughout the exhibition visitors can find quotes from some of his sitters, including Cindy Crawford, who said of the artist: “There was something magical about when you stepped in front of his camera and what happened then. This give-and-take, and that’s what makes it fun. I’ve had the opportunity to work with Helmut Newton to Avedon to Penn but probably the images that are the most timeless of me, most of them, were shot by Herb and are some of my favorite images of myself.”

Crawford appears in one of Ritts’ most famous images, Stephanie, Cindy, Christy, Tatjana, Naomi, Hollywood (1989). Taken at the end of a long day photographing a fashion editorial assignment for Rolling Stone, the image also includes Stephanie Seymour, Tatjana Patitz, Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington. Ritts also worked with Turlington on a Gianni Versace advertising campaign, which took them to the dry Mojave Desert lakebed known as El Mirage, where the vast open space gave him a sense of creative freedom. He used the gusts of a rising storm to coax a swath of fabric into an arch over the model’s head in Versace Dress, Back View, El Mirage (1990). Ritts’ photographs of celebrities and models appeared on magazine covers including Vanity Fair, Vogue, Interview, Playboy, TIME, Rolling Stone, and Allure.

Ritts had a particular affinity for photographing actors, musicians and cultural icons. The artist that he collaborated with most frequently was Madonna, whose whimsical Madonna, Tokyo (1987) was taken in her hotel when the Who’s That Girl World Tour opened in Japan. Generally, Ritts preferred to capture his subjects in spontaneous, playful moments such as these. “I think that with her, and with other people as well, the big word is trust,” Ritts said. “A person feels they can trust you because they know your reputation and what you’re about. Or they can feel it because over the years a tight relationship develops, as it did with Madonna. You work together and it clicks; you evolve.”

This spring, the MFA is celebrating the Ritts exhibition with a special ‘90s-themed First Friday event on April 3, featuring music and specialty cocktails. Additionally, an “Instameet” the evening of Wednesday, May 13 invites Instagrammers to be inspired by the exhibition, followed by the opportunity to capture their best black-and-white shots of the Museum. Fans can follow the MFA on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest for news and updates about the exhibition.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), is recognized for the quality and scope of its collection, which includes an estimated 500,000 objects. The Museum has more than 140 galleries displaying its encyclopedic collection, which includes Art of the Americas; Art of Europe; Contemporary Art; Art of Asia, Oceania, and Africa; Art of the Ancient World; Prints, Drawings, and Photographs; Textile and Fashion Arts; and Musical Instruments. Open seven days a week, the MFA’s hours are Saturday through Tuesday, 10 am–4:45 pm; and Wednesday through Friday, 10 am–9:45 pm Admission (which includes one repeat visit within 10 days) is $25 for adults and $23 for seniors and students age 18 and older, and includes entry to all galleries and special exhibitions. Admission is free for University Members and youths age 17 and younger on weekdays after 3 pm, weekends, and Boston Public Schools holidays; otherwise $10. Wednesday nights after 4 pm admission is by voluntary contribution (suggested donation $25). MFA Members are always admitted for free. The Museum’s mobile MFA Guide is available at ticket desks and the Sharf Visitor Center for $5, members; $6, non-members; and $4, youths. The Museum is closed on New Year’s Day, Patriots’ Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. For more information, visit or call 617.267.9300. The MFA is located on the Avenue of the Arts at 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115.