Herb Ritts


Herb Ritts "Fred with Tyres" 1984


Herb Ritts.
"Fred with Tyres."




"Fred with Tyres" became possibly the archetypal photograph of the male body in the 1980s and made the world-wide reputation of its commercial photographer, Herb Ritts. Gay men flocked to buy it, including myself. I was drawn by the powerful, perfectly sculpted body, the butchness of his job, the dirty trousers, the boots and the body placed within the social context. At the time I realised that the image of this man was a constructed fantasy, ie., not the 'real' thing, and this feeling of having been deceived has grown ever since. His hair is teased up and beautifully styled, the grease is applied to his body just so, his body twisted to just the right degree to accentuate the muscles of the stomach and around the pelvis. You can just imagine the stylist standing off camera ready to readjust the hair if necessary, the assistants with their reflectors playing more light onto the body. This/he is the seduction of a marketable homoeroticsm, the selling of an image as sex, almost camp in its overt appeal to gay archetypal stereotypes. Herb Ritts, whether in his commercial work or in his personal images such as those of the gay bodybuilders Bob Paris and Rod Jackson, has helped increase the acceptance of the openly homoerotic photograph in a wider sphere but this has been possible only with an increased acceptance of homosexual visibility within the general population.
Openly gay bodies such as that of Australian rugby league star Ian Roberts or American diver Greg Luganis can become heroes and role models to young gay men coming out of the closet for the first time, visible evidence that gay men are everywhere in every walk of life. This is fantastic because young gay men do need gay role models to look up to but the bodies they possess only conform to the one type, that of the muscular mesomorph and this reinforces the ideal of a traditional virile masculinity. Yes, the guy in the shower next to you might be a poofter, might be queer for heavens sake, but my God what a body he's got!



Bob Delmonteque "Glenn Bishop" nd

Herb Ritts "Male Nude with Bubble" 1987


Bob Delmonteque.
"Glenn Bishop."


Herb Ritts.
"Male Nude with Bubble,
Los Angeles."


Herb Ritts photographs are still based on the traditional physique magazine style of the 1950s as can be seen from the examples above. He also borrows heavily from the work of George Platt Lynes and the idealised perfection of Mapplethorpe. The bodies he uses construct themselves as the 'ideal' of what men should look like. Seduced by the perfection of his bodies gay men have rushed to the gym since the early 1980s in an attempt to emulate the ideals that Ritts proposes, to belong to the 'in' crowd, to have "the look."


Sadao Hasegawa.

Sadao Hasegawa "Untitled" 1990



Australian Body Architecture III

As the 1980s moved into the 1990s, artists (who happen to be gay) from different cultures around the world have succumbed to the heroic musculature that is the modern day epitome of the representation of gay masculinity. Although he denies any link to the work of Tom of Finland, Hasegawa portrays the body as a demigod using traditional Japanese and Western iconography to emphasise his themes of homosexual bondage and ritual. The body in his paintings and drawings, as in most art and images of the muscular male, becomes a phallus, the armoured body being a metaphor for the hidden power of the penis, signifying the power of mesomorphic men over women and 'other' not so well endowed men.

But there are still other artists who are gay who challenge the orthodoxy of such stereotypical images, using as their springboard the 'sensibility' of queer theory, a theory that critiques perspectives of social and cultural 'normality'. With the explosion of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in the mid 1980s, numerous artists started to address issues of the body: isolation, disease, death, beauty, gay sex, friendship between men, the inscription of the bodies surface, and the place of gay men in the world in a critical and valuable way. Ted Gott, commenting on Lex Middleton's image below in the book 'Don't Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS', curator of the important exhibition of the same name at The National Gallery of Art in Canberra, Australia in 1994, observes that the image,

".... reconsiders Bruce Weber's luscious photography of the naked male body for Calvin Klein's celebrated underwear advertising campaigns of the early 1980s. The proliferation of Weber/Klein glistening pectorals and smouldering body tone across the billboards of the United States was reaching its crescendo at the same time as the gay male 'body' came under threat from a 'new' disease not yet identified as HIV/AIDS. In opposing the rippling musculature and perfect visage of an athlete with the fragmented image of a Calvin Klein Y-fronted 'ordinary' man, Middleton questions the 'gay beauty myth', both as it touches gay men who do not fit the 'look' that advertising has decreed applicable to their sexuality, and from the projected perspective of HIV positive gay men who face the reality of the daily decay of their bodies."


Lex Middleton.
"Gay Beauty Myth."
Silver gelatin

Lex Middleton "Gay Beauty Myth" 1992



Other Australian artists, such as David McDiarmid in his celebrated series of safe sex posters for the AIDS Council of New South Wales, critique the body as site for libidinal and deviant pleasures for both positive and negative gay men as long as this is always undertaken safely. In the example from McDiarmid's series below we see a brightly coloured body, both positive and negative, filled with parties, drugs and alcohol, spreading the arse cheeks to make the arsehole the site of gay male desire. Note however, that the body still has huge arms, strong legs, and a massive back redolent of the desire of gay men for the muscular mesomorphic body image.


David McDiarmid/ACON 1992

David McDiarmid/AIDS
Council of New South Wales.
"Some of Us Get Out of It,
Some of Us Don't. All of Us Fuck
With a Condom, Every Time."



More revealing (literally) was the fantastic work and performance art of Brenton Heath-Kerr. Growing out of his involvement in the dance party scene in Sydney in 1991, Heath-Kerr's combination of costume and photography made his creations come to life, and he sought to critique the narcissistic elements of this gay dance culture, such as the Mardi Gras and Sleaze Ball parties. Later work included the figure "Homosapiens," (below) which observes the workings of the body laid bare by the ravages of HIV/AIDS and comments on the politics of governments who control funding for drugs to treat those who are infected.


Brenton Heath-Kerr "Homosapien" 1994



Brenton Heath-Kerr.