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Herb Ritts Tells Boston To 'Work' It Out at MFA Exhibition

Work Photographs by Herb Ritts at the Museum of Fine Arts through February 9

By Cicely V.wedgeworth

The Herb Ritts exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, entitled "Work," begins with some of Ritts' most familiar images--a sweaty young man with tires, a pane of falling water grasped by a naked man. Ritts uses photography to explore the human form, distilling it into clean, pure lines. Sometimes this concentration on form and line reduces the very humanity of the subject. In one photograph from a series taken at the beach, a woman heads out to sea. The smooth mass of wet hair plastered against her naked back and the dark triangle of her bikini bottom both define and contrast with the shape of her body against the glossy ripples of the ocean. The visual statement of these two dark splotches against her skin is so powerful that it almost overwhelms the knowledge that we are looking at a woman's body. Sometimes the focus on form enters the realm of pure optical illusion. One example is the photograph of the bodies of two men in a desert, overlapping in such a way that they resemble an alien creature.

Ritts also homes in on every textural detail: neither beads of water nor grains of sand on the skin's surface escape him, but in fact add textural depth to the picture. Another series of photographs shows models encrusted with white or black paint, turning their living bodies into images reminiscent of classical Greco-Roman statues.

Light and dark are precisely defined in these photographs; not for Ritts the ambiguous grays of other photographers. Although he loves to contrast the two, he does not deal in shadow play. The darkness in his photos comes from dark hair, a dark background, dark skin, and is distinctly separate from the light.

In the second room, the subject shifts to celebrities, mostly models and actors. Ritts takes no single approach to photographing them. There is the cast of Batman Forever in full costume, including Jim Carrey hamming it up as the Riddler and a huge Warholesque quartet of portraits of Jack Nicholson as the Joker. There is Vanity Fair's gender-bending cover photo of Cindy Crawford playing the seductress for k.d. lang. Unlike the anonymous models of the first part of the exhibition, whose faces are often turned away or obscured, the faces of the celebrities are essential to their portraits. However, sometimes the subject is reduced to a characteristic single attribute (Sandra Bernhard's mouth, Cher's rear view) that is key to their media image. In other pictures, Ritts' gaze shifts to a different aspect of the person. A portrait of Mick Jagger shows only his bony chest covered by a pair of satin overalls with "Mick" spelled out in rhinestones. Cindy Crawford is disguised as Marilyn Monroe in a blond wig. One whimsical portrait has an old, wrinkled Milton Berle in a granny cap. But the subjects don't just play parts; they also express themselves. One often gets a sense that a photo was part of a dialogue between Ritts and his models. They seem to be speaking from the prints.

Ritts' most recent book is entitled Africa, and its focus on the contrast between the dark-skinned subjects and the brightness of background and sky is pure Ritts, as are the extreme close-ups that examine the subjects so intently. However, only a few of these photographs are displayed in this exhibition, and they present an odd digression from the stargazing extravaganza that both precedes and follows them.

The final room is the climax of the exhibit. The color of the walls has been darkening with the progression of the photographs: the first room is light gray, the next room medium gray, and this final room dark gray, set with a few giant portraits like luminous beacons in the dimness. There is Frances Bean Cobain, almost frightening with her enormous eyes. Christopher Reeve, mounted on an elaborate wheelchair, somehow looks just as much like Superman as ever. The exhibition's final statement is a long, large strip of white upon which the figure of Bill T. Jones is repeated over and over again, in different moments of his dance. Frozen in motion, the language of his body is written clearly in the lines that Ritts has so perfectly captured. It is a powerful statement that sums up an artist who creates eloquence in silence, by letting people speak for themselves or by bringing out the lines of their bodies to tell their own stories.

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