'When he found out that he had HIV, I think I was one of the first people he told, and we just wept like babies.'

Herb Ritts, 1952- 2002
Story and Recording by Richard Gere
with introduction by Erik Hyman
Photo © Mark McKenna

Herb Ritts’ photography began when he and his good friend Richard Gere — then an unknown actor — did a photo shoot in 1978 in front of a vintage jacked-up Buick.  That got both of them some attention and led to Herb’s October 1981 cover photo of Brooke Shields for Elle magazine, and the cover of Olivia Newton-John’s album, Physical, in 1981.

In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Herb photographed some of the biggest celebrities of those decades.  Madonna, Denzel Washington, Cher, Tom Hanks, David Bowie, Michael Jackson, Matthew McConaughey, Johnny Depp, Courtney Love, Elizabeth Taylor, and many more. Herb directed 14 memorable music videos for major performers including Madonna, Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, Chris Isaak, Jon Bon Jovi and Mariah Carey, and won 2 MTV video awards.   I’m Erik Hyman, the President of the Herb Ritts Foundation and I was Herb’s partner when he died in 2002.  Here is Herb’s good friend Richard Gere with a tribute to Herb …

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Oh, how do I even start with Herb Ritts?  Herb was one of my closest and dearest friends.

I met him in L.A … Hollywood. We had mutual friends and Herb was just the nicest human being. He was sweet, and he was generous and curious and didn’t have a mean bone in his body.  He was kind of extraordinary that way.  He really stood out.

He decided to become a photographer and, through very hard work, he became one of the top fashion photographers in the world.  I was just looking through his stuff.  I mean, it is amazing.  It is classic.  He always wanted to be classic, he didn’t want to be a flavor of this month or year, he really wanted something that lasted.  I think those of us who were photographed by him felt that, that he was he was looking for something real and authentic.

And he was a warm photographer who people relaxed around, he made everyone look great.  I look at his photographs and I see where a lot of them came from, but they have his creativity, and his eye and his heart in them.

When he found out that he had HIV, I think I was one of the first people he told, and we just wept like babies.  He had the best healthcare one could get, but he just weakened.  He was having trouble, but I still remember how shocked I was when I got that call December 26, 2002, that he had passed away, it just didn’t seem possible.

Herb, up to the last moment, really helped a lot of people.  AMFAR … he and I worked on a couple of off-shoots from AMFAR, fast-track kind of scientific medical explorations.  He was always donating his time, energy and photographs to help.  He donated cameras to Africans who were going through this to document what they were experiencing with HIV and AIDS.  And his foundation is very focused on that.

So I think besides his own human legacy to his friends and the people who loved his art, I think his brothers and sisters who succumb to HIV have benefited so much from his willingness to put himself out there and embracing everyone who was touched by this disease that fractured all of us.

Herb was the best!