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Herb Ritts: Super
Claudia Schiffer, Malibu, 1990Photography Herb Ritts, © Herb Ritts Foundation

Photos of our favourite supermodels before they were famous

Herb Ritts captured honest and expressive portraits of Claudia Schiffer and Cindy Crawford long before anyone else knew their names

Nowadays, it takes little more than an iPhone and some good lighting to become an internet phenomenon. But the supermodels of the golden era of modelling, including Cindy Crawford and Claudia Schiffer, relied on another component – late photographer Herb Ritts.

Born in Los Angeles in 1952, Ritts had a talent for spotting future stars before anyone else did. This is a fact highlighted fantastically in his portraits of a baby-faced Christy Turlington in 1988 and a bikini-clad Helena Christensen in 1992, well before either launched careers as the most defining faces of the 90s. The theatricality, intimacy, and personability that shines through the photographs would go on to mark his signature style for the rest of his career, and the gelatin silver prints that he left behind after his death at just 50-years-old offer us an education in shooting the essence of the subject.

Even with no formal training, his black and white studio portraits are credited with helping to usher in the supermodel era and it’s often said that part of Ritts’ appeal was doubtlessly his personality. Naomi Campbell called him “a complete gentleman”, confessing, “he was very encouraging and would talk to you about a picture first, and slowly get you there to where he wanted. And you’d be amazed that you even could do that.

Few photographers have the credentials of Herb Ritts – a chance meeting with actor Richard Gere in the late 70s launched both of their careers – and few subjects ever trusted their photographer in the way that Ritts’s supermodels entrusted in him. The models, often accustomed to being told what to do, noted a remarkable artistic freedom with Ritts. Stephanie Seymour, speaking on her Playboy shoot which Ritts shot, once said: “I almost didn’t go… I was nervous… but we had the best time, and the pictures were so incredible. Half the time when we worked with Herb, we wouldn’t even want to stop. Because once you get that rhythm going, you just don’t want to stop. You don’t want to break it.”

It’s said that it was Herb Ritts who made the models super, but his photos mark him as a sort of ‘super’ too, and he will forever be unparalleled for his uniqueness, realness, and sheer magic. 

You can view more of Herb Ritts work at the Herb Ritts: Super exhibition at the Hamiltons Gallery until 27th January