Celeb photographer Herb Ritts gets his closeup

Cindy Crawford and k.d. lang, photographed by Herb Ritts in Los Angeles, 1993.
Herb Ritts Foundation

The distinctive style of celebrity photographer Herb Ritts made him something of a celebrity himself. Now, nine years after his death, the work of Ritts is getting its own CLOSE UP . . . as Rita Braver is about to show us:

Whether it was movie stars, musicians or models, Herb Ritts had a way of getting to the ESSENCE of a person.

"I can have a given situation set up, but it's catching that moment - allowing them to be themselves - and capturing something that's special," he said.

And up until his death in 2002 at age 50, Ritts was capturing those special images - photographs that were surprising, amusing, moving, memorable.

Gallery: The glamorous eye of Herb Ritts

Whether it was a world-renowned beauty like Cindy Crawford . . .

"What I always say is the way Herb photographed you is the way that you wished you looked when you got up in the morning," Crawford said . . .

. . . or singer-songwriter k.d. lang . . .

"I think Herb had a way of understanding how to exude the beauty within," lang said. "I really do. He knew the balance of the soul and the body, and where the beauty was."

"I presume there got to be a point where people really wanted him to take their picture?" asked Braver.

"Oh, absolutely," said Charles Churchward, a former design director at Conde Nast. "You know, everybody wanted him to take their picture!"

Ritts' friend Churchward thought it was time for a book that celebrated the man as well as the work.

"I think people want to know more about who's behind the camera and something about them," Churchward said. "And I think that's what makes them last. And that's why I wrote the book."

Churchward said that Ritts, who grew up in L.A., introduced a new kind of glamour photography.

"Herb had been raised with light, with the beaches, with the sun," he said. "Everybody before that was in the studio shooting and controlling everything. Suddenly he was able to take the same things outside and make people more natural and yet still have that glamour."

Ritts' photo of his pal Richard Gere - snapped while the two of them were waiting for a tire to be changed - helped launch both their careers in 1978.

Ritts once told CBS News, "Three months later, Vogue, Esquire, Mademoiselle had run all the images from the gas station that I'd taken, which was kind of interesting. And I got paid for it."

Soon, he was getting photographing everyone, from Tom Cruise to Julia Roberts . . . hanging out at Vanity Fair's Oscar party . . . and hosting his own celebrity-studded birthday bashes.

In fact Cindy Crawford and Richard Gere (who were married for 4 years) met at one of Herb's parties.

She said Ritts was just fun to be around:

"I mean, he was a mensch," Crawford said. "I don't know if you know that word. But he's just a good guy. He was a total sweetheart. He loved people."

She still remembers the shoot for one of his most famous pictures . . . a bevy of supermodels.

"The girls, we were jokingly [calling] it 'Naked Twister,'" Crawford said. "And I think Herb knew all of us individually, and was friendly with all of us, and that there was a comraderie."

Another Ritts pal talked him into branching out.

"Madonna suggested to Herb that he photograph one of her videos," said Churchward, "and he never did anything like that. But he was game to try anything."

They made her "Cherish" video, and he shot "In the Closet" for Michael Jackson.

But it's his photographs that will be remembered most . . . on display recently at L.A.'s Fahey/Klein Gallery, where an overflow crowd gathered to remember their old friend, and his world.

"Herb Ritts" The Golden Hour" by Charles Churchward
Rizzoli Books

But those who watched Ritts' work over the years are not surprised that collectors want to own his pictures, which don't come cheap: Prices can range from $40,000 up to $125,000.

"His photographs are in a class of their own," said lang. "You can just recognize a Herb Ritts photo from, you know, ten paces."

k.d. lang and Ritts collaborated on a Vanity Fair cover which made a big splash in the summer of 1993.

"Where'd the idea come from?" asked Braver.

"I just wanted to do something in a barber's chair," Lang replied. "Oh, he goes, that's great. And then he calls me and he goes, 'I'm gonna ask Cindy.'"

"I'm like ... 'Cindy!'" lang laughed.

"He said, 'Can you come to the studio? I'm shooting kd lang and I wanna use you as a prop,'" Crawford recalled. "And I had that kind of relationship with Herb where I was like 'OK,' you know?

"I thought Herb nailed it. And it became one of those images that people will always remember."

There are many Herb Ritts photos that people will always remember. Some of his most beautiful are not your typical glamour shots.

Churchward described Ritts' month-long trip to Africa where he got Massai warriors to be "fashion icons."

"They were having a great time," Churchward laughed. "And the fact is that he wanted to prove that he could use his eye anywhere."

Ritts learned in 1989 that he had AIDS, but he worked up until the very end.

His last shoot was of Ben Affleck for Vanity Fair.

One last photograph by a man who never stopped trying to top himself.

"What do you think we missed by not seeing him mature as a photographer?" Braver asked lang.

"He put everything, a lifetime of knowledge and wisdom and his eye for art into that short amount of years," she said. "Who knows what the plan is ... but I can only imagine what his photos would have been like."

For more info:

•  Herb Ritts Foundation
•  "Herb Ritts: The Golden Hour" by Charles Churchward (Rizzoli Books) | Amazon
•  kdlang.com
•  cindy.com
•  faheykleingallery.com