Reeve, Taylor, Pfeiffer among stars captured in stills

Herb Ritts, the celeb and fashion photographer whose pictures helped define the image-conscious 1980s and ’90s, died Thursday of complications of pneumonia. He was 50.

Ritts died at UCLA Medical Center, publicist Stephen Huvane said.

Ritts’ access to celebrities, even at their most fragile moments, gave him an edge in the competitive world of photography. He photographed Christopher Reeve, wired up and immobile in a high-tech wheelchair. In another photo, Elizabeth Taylor sported a crew cut and the scar from her brain surgery.

Ritts was born in Los Angeles in 1952. He moved to the East Coast to attend New York’s Bard College, where he studied economics. He later returned to California and took a job as a sales rep for the family furniture business.

Famous faces

Chance and connections propelled Ritts into the world of celebrity photography in the ’70s.

A drive in the desert led to a flat tire and an impromptu photo session in a service station with Richard Gere, whom he knew through someone who was dating the actor at the time. The result was a photo of a steamy Gere in a white vest, his arms over his head and a cigarette dangling from his mouth.

“I can’t remember whether I told Richard to put his arms over his head or whether I just clicked when he stretched. And he really smoked a lot. He was like that, a handsome kid and very sexy,” Ritts said in an interview for a catalog that accompanied a 2000 show of his work at Paris’ Fondation Cartier.

At the time, Gere was an unknown. A year later he was a star, and Ritts’ photos were being used as publicity shots.

Mags’ main man

By the mid- to late 1980s, celebrity photography had begun its domination of magazine covers, and Ritts was on the short list of those who shot their celeb portraits. Along with Annie Leibovitz, Matthew Rolston and Bruce Weber, Ritts had a virtual lock on the field.

He shot celebrities from Michelle Pfeiffer to Dizzy Gillespie for top fashion and culture magazines such as Vanity Fair (for which he shot numerous covers), Interview, Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue and Elle. He took pictures for album covers and directed musicvideos for, among others, Madonna, Elton John and Cher.

In 1991 two of his videos won MTV Awards: female video, with Janet Jackson, and male video, with Chris Isaak. More recently, he directed the vid for N’ Sync’s “Gone,” a 2002 MTV video of the year nominee.

He is survived by his mother, Shirley Ritts; brother Rory; sister Christy; and his partner, Erik Hyman.

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