NEW YORK—On April 5 the Herb Ritts Foundation, Los Angeles, announced a gift to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) of $2.5 million, along with 189 of the artist’s photographs. The museum plans to create a gallery of photography to be named for the celebrity and fashion photographer, who died in 2002 at age 50. The Herb Ritts Gallery for Photography is expected to open in 2010.
Eleven years ago the museum took a gamble on a major exhibition of 230 black-and-white images by Ritts. Simply titled “Work,” the show drew sharp criticism from several experts who felt that the museum was blurring the line between fine art and commercial photography by displaying photographs that had been used for magazine and album covers.
Nonetheless the exhibit, which attracted 250,000 visitors, was among the best-attended in the museum’s history. It also helped to propel Ritts’ work even higher in the fine art sphere.
“The MFA ventured forward in 1996 by giving Herb a large solo exhibition,” Herb Ritts Foundation president Mark McKenna told ARTnewsletter, “and that show was very helpful to Herb’s career. But I think the exhibition also showed the thirst for photography and its total acceptance as a fine art.” McKenna adds that after the show MFA director Malcolm Rogers continued to be supportive of Ritts’ work.
At the time of the 1996 exhibit, Ritts gave 41 of the images on display to the MFA; the museum will receive the remaining 189 additional photographs from that exhibition over a period of years.
Ritts made two related bodies of work: his photography, consisting largely of commercial work for magazines the likes of Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and Vogue (1.6 million images created for 1,973 assignments over the 25-year period from 1978-2002 that belong to the Foundation, in addition to 1.2 million rolls of film and contact sheets); and fine art prints, comprising a smaller body of his work. These images—in black and white, like Ritts’ photographs—were created in edition sizes of 12-25, although some of these editions were never completed, says David Fahey, Ritts’ longtime Los Angeles dealer and vice president of the Foundation.
Sales of these fine art prints range in price from $3,500/50,000, depending upon their “importance, popularity and rarity,” Fahey reports. He notes that the foundation donates proceeds from the sale of the prints to AIDS-related charities and the promotion of photography as a fine art.
Both Fahey and McKenna affirm that posthumous prints of Ritts’ works will not be made; nor will his commercial pictures and contact sheets be sold. Rather, they are earmarked for use by scholars.
Fahey was Ritts’ exclusive dealer for more than 20 years. His gallery Fahey/Klein, Los Angeles, is now one of four that represent the artist’s work. The others are Staley-Wise Gallery, Manhattan; Wessel + O’Connor Fine Arts, Brooklyn; and Fay Gold Gallery, Atlanta.
Takouhy Wise, owner of Staley-Wise gallery, which has shown Ritts’ work since the mid-1980s, says photographs at her first Ritts’ show were fetching $600 apiece. Prices have come a long way since then, both on the primary market and at auction.
The highest auction price for a Herb Ritts photograph was set in February at the Elton John AIDS Foundation Benefit Auction, at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, in which his 1989 image of supermodels Stephanie, Cindy, Christy, Tatjana, Naomi [in] Hollywood, 1989, fell for $190,000 to an anonymous European buyer.
That photograph was a mural-size version of the image, donated to the auction by the Foundation as part of its efforts to support AIDS-related services. A smaller version of that image was sold at Christie’s in 2006 for $54,000, topping the auctioneer’s $15,000/25,000 estimate.