Herbal Essence

The Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale has been abuzz with excitement since last month's opening of "Herb Ritts: Work" and understandably so. South Florida is only the second stop for this photography retrospective, assembled by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in late 1996, and the exhibition is an ambitious collection of more than 230 silver gelatin prints, some as large as ten feet high, that provide a generous overview of Ritts' prolific output.

The whole first floor of the museum is devoted to the show, and the photographer himself came to town and made the rounds of the social circuit to help promote the event. The museum's gift shop has even been turned into a sort of Herb Ritts boutique: See the show, buy the merchandise. If the lavish exhibition catalog, a hefty hardback tome that includes shots that aren't on display, proves too pricey for your taste, as it did mine ($135 autographed), there's a veritable Ritts-o-rama from which to choose, including T-shirts, baseball caps, tote bags, note cards, refrigerator magnets, posters, and coffee mugs.

You can also tell the show is a big to-do for the museum because hours have been expanded and admission rates bumped up, although the powers-that-be stop short of requiring reservations. And in case all this arty photography threatens to overwhelm the average visitor, plenty of museum docents are on hand, breathlessly eager to "explain" the works.

As is often the case when a fuss is made over a show, there's less here than meets the eye. (Think along the lines of The Emperor's New Clothes.) That's not to say Ritts' work is without merit; it's just that the hype obscures what's good as well as what's mediocre about it.

Perhaps because photographers had to struggle for so long to justify being taken seriously as artists, there's sometimes a tendency to overcompensate by embracing virtually all photography without question. The blunt fact of the matter is that a great deal of Ritts' work is commercial, meaning it's photography designed to sell something. That "something" may be designer fashions, a magazine cover story, a record, or an automobile (Ritts also directs music videos and TV commercials), but it's still a product, and the images serve that product.

Although the show is divided into four categories -- "Celebrities," "Fashion," "Studies of the Human Form," and "Africa" -- the celebrity portraiture for which Ritts is best known takes up more than half the exhibition. And many of the shots categorized as fashion photography and human studies could just as well be considered celebrity work. Isn't Naomi Campbell as much a celebrity as a model? Can't Bob Paris, the former bodybuilding champ and current gay activist who's half of the male couple in the Duo series, be considered a celebrity as well? Even one of the most striking images in the "Africa" series, a picture of a stern-faced, ornately dressed Masai woman nursing her child, could be mistaken, at first glance, for a portrait of model/singer/actress Grace Jones.

What we're being sold here, of course, is a chance to get close to the rich and/or famous, an opportunity to glimpse the hearts and souls of people ordinarily beyond our reach. Implicit in the sales pitch is the notion that, aside from their wealth and fame -- and that's a big aside -- these folks are essentially just like us. (Boston Museum of Fine Arts director Malcolm Rogers concedes, in an essay he wrote on the exhibit, that "Ritts' people seem like gods and goddesses," but he also asserts, disingenuously, that the photographer's milieu is "truly a classless world, a world of opportunity in which anyone with talent or good looks may become a star.")

Take for instance Ritts' famous shot of Madonna, a favorite subject, lolling on a bed in Tokyo in 1987, wearing Mickey Mouse ears and a polka-dotted bow in her hair, eyes rolled upward. See, the picture proclaims, she's just a zany girl goofing off. In photograph after photograph, Ritts peddles this "just folks" coziness, and after a while it becomes a bit unsettling, even claustrophobic. Do we really want to get this close to some of these people?

Ritts is far more interesting when he sets out to subvert or tweak what we think we know about celebrities. A portrait of Michelle Pfeiffer, almost unrecognizable in male drag, plays off the image of her as an extraordinarily beautiful woman. One of four David Bowie shots strips away the glam and glitter to give us a refreshingly unadorned take on the singer-songwriter. Pictures of Sandra Bernhard and Axl Rose become reductionist portraits of a gaping mouth and a tattooed arm respectively. An outtake from a Vanity Fair cover shoot puts male-clad k.d. lang in a barber's chair, with the provocatively posed, scantily dressed Cindy Crawford hovering over and "shaving" her/him.

Some images are arresting simply because they're so surreal. A few simple touches -- a brocade jacket, a thin twirling moustache decorated with tiny flowers, crossed arms and a defiant facial expression -- transform Dustin Hoffman, of all people, into a faux Salvador Dali. Djimon Hounsou, a Ritts collaborator before going on to lead the slave rebellion in Steven Spielberg's Amistad, appears in one shot with an octopus draped over his head, its tentacles trailing down his glistening face and upper torso like dreadlocks.

In some of his best portraits, Ritts invites us to forget, at least momentarily, who the subject is and to get caught up in the drama of the image. A gigantic closeup profile of Sinead O'Connor, taken in Malibu in 1990, is fascinating not because of its famous face but because of the details: the delicate whorls and curves of her ear, the contrast between her dark brow and eyelashes with the creaminess of her skin, the texture of her stubbly scalp set off by a small pale scar. Shadowy profiles of the Picassoesque Spanish actress Rossy de Palma and a real Picasso, Paloma, form bookends at opposite ends of one wall, inviting us to consider their similarities and differences.

Other times Ritts takes a cue from Robert Mapplethorpe and turns his subjects into abstract celebrations of form. The large, freestanding wall to the left as you enter the museum's main gallery is given to a huge, breathtaking nude of the black dancer Bill T. Jones, his graceful body crouched, head bowed, set against a stark white background. Directly behind this wall, a portion of another wall features eight more images of Jones, on large, contiguously mounted, white panels, in which the dancer's poses have a rising and falling arc of energy and rhythm that reminds me of The Swimmingpool, that magnificent Matisse mural at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Also like Mapplethorpe, Ritts has a distinct element of homoeroticism running through much of his work (the photographs of men far outnumber those of women), although the abundance of naked male flesh in this exhibition is of a considerably less explicit variety than Mapplethorpe's inflammatory nudes. As with the Bill T. Jones pictures, Ritts seems drawn to the subject matter more for its shapes and textures than for any specific sexual content. Duo IV, for instance, consists of two muscular male torsos entwined in the Mexican sand, and while it's a highly sensuous image, it's also an abstract study in lines and contours and chiaroscuro shadings.

Even the well-known 1984 picture Fred With Tires, a shot of a shirtless, tire-wielding hunk that in poster form adorns many a gay bar, is no racier than the average beefcake photograph. In it and its eight less static companion pieces, Ritts again appears to be more interested in the compositional elements that make up a gay iconography: the garage setting, military-style dog tags, washboard abs, tousled hair, smudges of grease.

But you can bet it's those glitzy celebrity shots that are attracting the mainstream crowds, and you have to give the Museum of Art credit for making an effort to reach people who might normally be intimidated by an art show. That's fine. There's nothing wrong with exhibiting a series of beautiful black-and-white photographs of the emperor in his many incarnations. Just don't try to convince me he's wearing clothes that aren't there.

"Herb Ritts: Work" is on display through May 2 at the Museum of Art, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-525-5500.

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