Something was coming from Ritts' work from the very beginning, when, in 1978, he was shooting his then unknown friend Richard Gere, who a year later was a star, opening the doors to Ritts' celebrity portrait career, which blossomed to become, as all the obits have noted, "one of the defining photographic styles of the image-conscious '80s and '90s." But Ritts' celebrity work was about far more than superficial glamour. Christopher Reeve and Stephen Hawking in their wheelchairs; Elizabeth Taylor flaunting her brain surgery scar - "He could get people to do things that they were reluctant to do, because in the end it would make a great photograph," said David Fahey, Ritts' gallery representative. Actor Edward Norton, himself a Ritts subject, once told The Los Angeles Times, "I feel like Herb really does see everything as beautiful. It's almost as if he can't help but see it in its idealized form." Yet, at the same time, there were so many challenging, provocative Pop-inflected images. Madonna grabbing her crotch; Cindy Crawford in drag; Cindy Crawford, barely clothed, shaving K.D. Lang in drag; a pregnant Annette Bening . . . then there are the great music videos, led by Ritts' 1991 MTV Music Video Awards wins for Best Female Video (Janet Jackson's "Love Will Never Do Without You") and Best Male Video (Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game"); and, of course, the many fashion commercials, awash in the sensuality of the body and its accouterments. There are the eight books of photography and the major retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, in 1996-97. Indeed, as with so many polished styles that may seem the product of nothing more than pop-culture instant gratification and the advertising and glamour industries, the work transcends any superficial gym-cult of the body or evanescent fashion trend - there's a higher truth reflected back at us, as well.
As Veronica Horwell wrote of Ritts in The Guardian: "His mother, Shirley, was proud of him. 'Herb has great integrity,' she said. 'He'd call and tell me to turn on the television because there was something on about him, and I'd say, 'You look great.' He'd say, 'But, Mom, how about the work?' "
Ritts also lent his efforts to charities and was active in raising funds for AIDS groups. In a piece for a Digitaljournalist.org feature called "20 Years: AIDS and Photography," Ritts had written: "The real impact of AIDS is the void that it leaves. It's what you don't ever see, the photography that hasn't been made. Photographs that will not be there on the walls. Photographs that will not be there to affect people in generations to come."
Ritts' work, however, will be there.