Our intrepid writer Alessia Scacchi steps up again with another brilliant #IntoTheDarkroom with Herbert Ritts and his amazing hybrid images of the striking model Alek Wek.
THE PERFORMANCE OF THE HYBRID
The identity of the famous American photographer Herbert Ritts (1952-2002) matches his photographic work through the hybrid’s performance. The term performance is connected to the action, the fulfillment and the dimension of the experience. Hybrid refers to the meeting of different characteristics that are sublimated into another being. How far did Ritts’ work go to representing Herbert Ritts?
Herbert was born to a Jewish family in Los Angeles and received his first Kodak at the age of ten. Los Angeles circa the 50’s embodied the American Dream, where ideas of capitalism and freedom (among others) were prevalent. Herbert Ritts sought freedom by declaring his homosexuality and launching himself into the world of photography.
Celebrity for him arrived with an accidental photoshoot at a gas station when by fortune (in hindsight) he had to change the tyre of his car. At the time Herbert Ritts was accompanied by a young, handsome Richard Gere. Following the impromptu shoot with Herbert Ritts, Richard Gere would go on to be cast as the lothario Julian Kaye in Paul Schrader’s 80’s classic dark romantic crime thriller American Gigolò (1980).
Following this rather iconic shoot, endless collaborations flooded in from major editorial publications with artists from the world of fashion and music. Herbert Ritts worked to clear the taboo of homosexuality, a topic that clearly involved him in the first person. The male body was thus exalted in its plasticity, acquiring the sensuality of a typically feminine body: it was the pursuit of the Greek ideal of beauty, which reflected the widespread obsession for the care of the body of those years.
Herbert Ritts created a new materiality
In 1998 Herbert was called to work on the 1999 edition of the Pirelli calendar which was famous for the publication of artistic celebrity nudes. On this occasion he met the African model Alek Wek, who escaped to Europe from the civil war in Sudan. A brilliant work collaboration was born. Herbert Ritts decided to dress her with black plasticized glossy varnish, which became her new skin. Dress and body were outclassed by a new artificial surface. The result was a hybrid body, halfway between the natural and the artificial, which assumed its own identity. Herbert Ritts created a new materiality.
The sexuality of this new body was hybrid: the feminine features are present, but no longer markedly demarcated. Let us remember that we are talking about a nude calendar, which had always been based on the iconicity of the feminine beauty of celebrities. With this photograph, Ritts broke the mold and proposed a new icon halfway between reality and imagination. It was a body that was more an aesthetic prefiguration of a new beauty.
The hybrid body is the meeting between masculine and feminine, between organic and inorganic, between exteriority and interiority, between everyday and iconic. It is an avant-garde performance.
Who then is the individual who breaks into photography? It is a hybrid in which there is the identity of a photographer and a man, of a woman and a model, of a Jew and a homosexual, of a star and a political refugee.
“That’s why I felt so at home when I went to Africa. It didn’t matter that I was halfway around the world in a foreign country, because all those elements are universal. And I think that’s one thing about my work: It’s universal.”