Music Video Directors: Herb Ritts

Herb Ritts. Legend.

Herbert “Herb” Ritts Jr. was an American fashion photographer who concentrated on black-and-white photography and portraits, often in the style of classical Greek sculpture.

Ritts with his most famous work.

He shot Olivia Newton-John for her Physical album in 1981. Five years later, he would replicate that cover pose with Madonna for her 1986 release True Blue. Then, again in 1993, he would do the same for Prince with his The Hits/The B-Sides collection.

To say that he worked with all of my idols (except for Robyn Loau), is a huge understatement.

While more well known for his photographs and as a commercial director, it’s his music videos which I’d like to talk about.

It was on Madonna’s Cherish that he got his break into music videos, an incredibly auspicious start if ever there was one. In this video Madonna plays a woman who falls in love with a Merman. It’s an incredibly simple video, but a romantic one. It features a lot of his signature style. The Leni Riefenstahl influences in his camera’s adoration of the male physique at peak condition, the romanticism, and the underwater shots. There is also a nice reference to the iconic shot in On the beach, where Madonna lies on the beach while the waves crash between her legs. This is Madonna at her most romantic, something we have not seen in her work before or since.

He next worked with Janet Jackson on her Love with never do (without you) video. Here we see the exploration into the body at peak physical condition explored even more. Without a doubt influenced by Leni Riefenstahl’s work on the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Here again, we see Herb Ritts once again working with a woman not known for her soft features, and making her incredibly romantic. He introduces a limited colour palette into the video, and shoots Janet during golden hour. For those of you who are not sure what I’m referring to, “Golden Hour” is the hour around sunrise and sunset where the light is golden and on film, makes everything look like a million dollars. His next videos for Chris Issak further this same theme, of beautiful bodies in peak physical condition at the beach.

His next major music video is for none other than Michael Jackson. To me this is Herb Ritts at the very peak of his powers. His work for Shakira and Jennifer Lopez, when he was near the end of his life, in the throws of AIDS, don’t really have the same power. Here he is working with the biggest artist in the world, on a video designed to sex-up his image. An interesting side note to this is that the song was originally supposed to be a duet with Madonna, but Michael baulked at her lyrical suggestions. Michael wanted to sex-up his image, but not too much. And the video succeeds at this. Set in the Mexican desert at a deserted farm, the video is hot and sweaty. Naomi Campbell features in the video as the object of his affections. Again a woman not known for her warmth, but here again, at the hands of Ritts, she comes across both beautiful and unattainable, yet also warm and inviting. Ritts also manages to give Jackson a masculine sensuality which was unseen in his videos prior to this. This video is probably the best he ever looked after his skin lightened. This video also introduces some subtle story elements to the mix. In the video, you never really see either Jackson or Campbell touch each other (although they do touch themselves) for the first three minutes. They closest they get is in shadow, their silhouettes almost touch, but never quite get there. Even in the later half of the video, it never really gets beyond a slight touch of the thigh. You think they are doing quiet a lot, but actually they do very little actual touching. For this video is about illicit desire. The video certainly gets that point across well. For me, there is one thing that I would have liked to add to make it perfect. Just one simple shot of Naomi Campbell with a wedding ring. For me then all of this would make more sense. As the video stands, they never really explain why these two people, who are obviously very attracted to each other. Who are alone in the desert. Never really seal the deal. We never find out why this relationship is illicit. It was recently revealed that the voice on the album version of the song was Princess Stéphanie of Monaco, which again would make more sense. If the woman is Royal, and Jackson is just a regular man – they couldn’t be together because of her position. In any case, the song itself presents a hard story to tell. As written in the wiki for this song:

The song, written and composed by Michael Jackson and Teddy Riley, is about keeping a relationship secret between lovers. “In the closet” is an English idiom used when one is not open about an aspect of their life, particularly in regard to sexual orientation. Despite the song’s suggestive name its lyrics do not allude to hidden sexual orientation but rather a concealed relationship; “Don’t hide our love / Woman to man.”

So, when the song itself presents mixed messages, perhaps it is best just to create a mood, as Herb Ritts has done so successfully here. While it is a hard song to listen back to and not draw conclusions to it’s actual meaning, now more than twenty years later, in a post-court case Michael Jackson. I still like to watch this music video for what it is, and not for what my mind wants to say about a man singing about a dangerous, illicit love that he must keep “in the closet”. In terms of the look, he revisits the dilapidated old white house that he used so successfully in Janet’s video. And he later revisits the themes of the video in his work for Chris Isaak’s “Baby did a bad, bad thing”. And he often recreated this hot, steamy look on later videos, notably for Jennifer Lopez in “Ain’t it funny”.

To sum things up, Herb Ritts was an incredibly successful music video director. While his early work was by far his strongest in his earlier videos, they always had a very strong vision. Romantic, worshiping the body beautiful, hot and steamy, yet never gratuitous. He shows that music videos require interesting shots and a singular mood to tell their stories. And it never hurts to make the artist look the best they’ve ever looked in their entire careers.

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