With a few exceptions, it’s easy to dismiss fashion photography as non-serious. Like fashion itself, there is a overtness to the genre that makes it appear obvious. Outfit beautiful people with beautiful clothes in a beautiful setting. How difficult could it be?
Yet, like other forms of photography, there are hacks and there are experts. The experts can transcend the confines of the genre and make an incredibly beautiful photograph that possess a quality that goes beyond the superficial and the visceral.
I first encountered the work of Herb Ritts as a child. Anyone with a pulse in the 1980s will remember his stark black and white photos of the bold and the beautiful. And of course, his work with Madonna – in print and in music videos – reinforced his reputation.
When I came across a retrospective exhibition at Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris, I was intrigued mostly out of nostalgia. But after seeing large silver halide prints, I came away with a new appreciation of his work as a photographer.
This is an exemplary fashion image that perfectly highlights the clothes while still creating a graphically appealing pattern using an abstract nude. This approach can be seen in the work of photographers like Aperture Portfolio Prize Runner-up Bill Durgin today.
Ritts traveled to Africa, where he found an instant connection – likening the vastness and lightness to his native California. There is a jubilance to his image of the Maasai women shot in 1993 that lays in stark contrast to Steve McCurry’s 2016 images for Valentino. McCurry was literally 20 years too late.
His image of a running the Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee is an amazing sports action photo in the abstract. Just enough motion blur to create a sense of movement, and a strange intersection of shadow and human that echoes Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Moment.
Finally, his image of Madonna for the cover of her 1986 album “True Blue.” The iconic image is a masterpiece of the fashion portrait, and was a drastic style shift from Madonna’s Material Girl days. You might remember the colorized version that appeared as album art.
But here is a black and white version.
And here is the detail that Ritts captured that can only be seen with the richness of a large print. The baby hairs on the side of Madonna’s face are visible, and the glorious grain of a film-based print is revealed.
The exhibition was also a stark reminder of the importance of seeing photos in print. There is a quality to the large scale print that simply cannot be captured while viewed on a phone. Like a live musical performance, there is a certain je nais se quoi to the gallery exhibition that shouldn’t be missed – especially while in Paris.
EN PLEINE LUMIÈRE
Maison Européenne de la Photographie
5/7 Rue de Fourcy, 75004 Paris, France
Through October 30, 2016