Herb Ritts at the Cincinnati Art Museum, and Edward Steichen at the Taft Museum of Art

by Keith Banner

Herb Ritts’ show “L. A. Style” at the Cincinnati Art Museum (up through December 30, 2012) has an etched-in-stone, funereal quality fused with a kinky soullessness. Ritts is one of those seminal photographers of an age, like Richard Avedon, Irving Penn and Edward Steichen (more on him a little later), whose lens captured the essence of a zeitgeist way beyond what is framed in his pictures. Looking at those ceramic-hard, luscious black-and-white supermodel bodies, their sleek gowns and vacant gazes set within stark beach wonderlands and concrete edifices, I felt drawn back into an era when Reagan was about to pass the torch to Bush, AIDS was still mauling its way through a generation, and contemporary art was becoming sort of unessential culturally, in the face of Vanity Fair spreads, Madonna-era sadomasochism chic, and perfume and fashion ads so elegant they made you believe that perfume, fashion, and celebrity could change the way the world works.

Herb Ritts was a genius, not because he had anything new to add to the conversation, but because, like Andy Warhol (sans all that messy, Chelsea-Hotel psychodrama), he re-created a way to idolize what was already there, right in front of you, fetishizing and iconizing bodies into objects of conspicuous consumption, while maintaining the distance and discipline of an aesthete. In the pictures in the exhibit, beautifully and archly curated by Paul Martineau of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, Ritts makes poetry out of pop, freeze-drying the juiciness of desire into concrete, black-and-white totems of what beauty does when it’s left all alone.

Stark, intentional loneliness haunt all of Ritts’ pictures, giving them a ghostly haze that’s so calculated it turns into glaze. One of the most haunting and pretentious pieces is “Mask, Hollywood, 1989,” a photo from 1989 of supermodel Helena Christensen in which her hair has been shellacked over her face – a sort of slick primitive overhaul of glamour, and yet so glamorous it’s spooky.

That same spookiness is in “Fred with Tires,” a homoerotic paean to “the working man” that also has the glossy, stained chic of old-fashioned porn. Still, within those limits, Ritts is able to find a crystallized and somehow corporate lyricism. His eye always seems eager to freeze what’s in the lens so that it looks absolutely prefabricated and “perfect,” and that “perfection,” in turn, becomes a gorgeous curse. All the pictures are like this in the show: surface-oriented, a little trashy, but also classical and staid, as if Ritts’ vision both flattens and cheapens the idea of desire while creating opulence that seems to have transcended the era in which it was created.
Also included in “L. A. Style” are some of the music videos Ritts created during his short lifetime (he died from AIDS in 2002, at the age of 50). One of the greatest music videos ever made has to be his “Love Will Never Do without You,” a 1989 gem with Janet Jackson transformed into a dreamy, robotic supermodel, with the tightest stomach ever to fit into worn-out jeans. In the video she is ensconced in beautiful male bodies and desert-scapes. It’s mostly in black-in-white, and has that glamorous distance that’s in all of Ritts’ work. Somehow, though, Jackson seems to be able to inhabit Ritts’ hyper-cool world with a warmth and genuineness that almost satirizes Ritts’ visual motifs. She is a Barbie doll that understands her Barbie-doll-ness.

I think Ritts also understood how he fit into the artistic world: he put commerce first (there are a lot of perfume ad photos in “L. A. Style”), but within those confines he discovered a way to turn flash into a sort of substance: desire personified, held captive, and then frozen into a new version of itself.

“The better you look, the more you see,” Brett Easton Ellis, a sort of Herb-Ritts of the literary world, writes in his trashy, flashy, very ice-cold novel about super-models and terrorists, Glamorama. I think Ritts understood that line instinctively. He made bodies into objects that look so good you could see something more than beauty and less than spiritual, a sort of metaphysical limbo in which nothing is less than perfect and everything is about one deliriously chilly orgasm.

In “Star Power: Edward Steichen’s Glamour Photography” at the Taft Museum of Art through January 27, 2013, that same frosty, glitzy sexiness is on display in every one of Steichen’s photographs of movie stars from the 20s and 30s – but everyone mostly keeps their clothes own.

And it’s the clothes that somehow give the pictures their stateliness, while also giving each star the regal power of palace furniture come to life. In Steichen’s Katherine Hepburn portrait, a black sleek gown allows her milk-white shoulders to pour onto a fainting couch, while she sensuously touches the bottom of her chin. The expression is stilted, stiff, and yet Hepburn comes off somehow satiated, knowing, like a tired angel just about ready to ascend into the photograph’s lush gray backdrop.

In each of his pictures, Steichen seems to be inventing what glamor will be for the 20th century, and maybe perhaps forever. These photographs of luminaries like Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich, and Gloria Swanson give off a sense of destiny even now, as if Steichen’s camera not only flashes but concretizes, creating extravagance without being overt, lushness without drunkenness. Especially in the portrait of Swanson you get the feeling that you are somehow in a new world looking at it – Swanson’s lace-covered profile beaming out almost mystically, but with a carnal curlicue in each eye.

F. Scott Fitzgerald writes in The Great Gatsby, “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning– So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Gatsby haunts Steichen’s milieu – you feel the future being turned into the past with each portrait, and a glamorous nostalgia that is both ceaseless and somehow, like that green light, ineffable and even dangerous. These stars Steichen photographed so meticulously and with such icy lovingness become so elusive that you remember each one of them like you remember dead family members in dreams. They are black-and-white fascinations that have been transformed into symbols, flesh into figment. Maybe glamor is about that ache to return to innocence Fitzgerald gets at in Gatsby – that need to run faster even though you know there’s no destination outside of the past.

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