You may or may not know who Herb Ritts is. You absolutely know his work.
Ritts, who died in 2002 at age 50, created some of the most iconic photographs of the 1980s and 1990s. They were more likely to appear in magazines or even in television commercials than in galleries. Still, he is considered on of the significant artists of his generation.
Paul Martineau, whose home base is the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, is the curator of "Herb Ritts: L.A. Style," which opened Saturday at the Ringling Museum of Art. He debuted the show at the Getty in the spring of last year and set attendance records. That was the first major showing of Ritts' work since a 1996 show at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, which also drew record crowds.
Local art lovers will see essentially the same show. All but seven of the original 87 photographs will be on exhibit at the Ringling.
During his life and even now, more than a decade later, Ritts is best known for his commercial photography, his celebrity portraits, his fashion photography and his nudes. He didn't draw much of distinction between his work-for-hire and his fine art, Martineau said.
"The advertising work was what paid his bills and allowed him to have a studio," he said. "He would often do his fine art work after the end of his (commercial) sessions.
Even his advertising photographs were informed and inspired by historical and contemporary sources.
"He had an amazing look," Martineau said. "He had the ability to incorporate influences from film and from other photographers and create pictures that have a timeless quality."
They may have a timeless quality, but many observers have also noted that Ritts' work is very much a part of its time.
Martineau culled the 80 photographs in the show by spending months going through something like 10,000 boxes of pictures at the Ritts Foundation, a non-profit that Ritts founded when he knew he was dying from HIV. To emphasize that timeless quality that he finds so appealing, Martineau eschewed most of the celebrity photographs that most of use have seen many times; he favored instead shots of nudes, athletes and fashion. He also concentrated on Ritts' most elegant work, even though the artist had a marked whimsical side that shows through in much of his work.
Many of Ritts' images, such as his nude study of five nude supermodels of the era, have become emblems of the '80s. But there are just as many works that have hardly ever been seen, including a 1993 portrait of Cindy Crawford in a Ferre dress that appeared only once, in a magazine.
"There are all these pictures that were never editioned," Martineau said. "So they've been seen only once. So if a picture was only seen once, in Vogue 20 years ago, it's like they're seeing it for the first time, because they don't remember."
Or at least most people don't remember. Some of Ritts' images are so striking that people have remarked that they remember seeing them in advertisement from half a lifetime ago. Not too many photographers can create pictures with that kind of impact, Martineau said.
"He really defined the look of his era," said Matthew McLendon, the museum's curator of modern and contemporary art. "Very few artists of any genre can say that. But he was definitely one of the artists who defined the aesthetic of the '80s and '90s.
Critics have called Ritts' work formulaic; fans are more likely to say he had an immediately recognizable style. Martineau said that Ritts' work is an tradition with photographers as diverse as George Hurrell, the creator of myriad familiar and elegantly moody portraits of movie stars from the 1930s and '40s, and Richard Avedon "with his white spaces and his sense of the moment," and Robert Mapplethorpe, the master of light, skin and muscle, who was in turn also influenced by Ritts.
The show is "pretty much a retrospective," Martineau said. But there's an emphasis on what he considers the years of Ritts' artistic peak, in the 1980s and into the early '90s.
In the '90s, HIV had caused Ritts' vision to deteriorate to the point where he was legally blind. But he was so driven to create that he kept working. He had apprentices focus the camera for him, because he could see enough detail to know when the focus was perfect, but his work still wasn't quite as bold as it had been.
For the Ringling, the Ritts show represents another step in its "Art in Our Time" initiative, which aims to establish the museum as a force in contemporary art.
The museum's reputation for classical art was long established, but McLendon said his efforts to also complement the classical work with more contemporary art have been widely welcomed.
Details: Through May 19 at the Ringling Museum of Art, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursday. Admission: $25 adults, $20 seniors, $5 students and children age 6-17, free for children age 5 and younger. Information: www.ringling.org or 941-359-5700.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 7919. Follow Twitter.com/martinclear.