In George Plimpton's hugely effective biography of Truman Capote, he says he interviewed "friends, enemies and acquaintances." Charles Churchward in this massive tome about the photographer Herb Ritts used the same interview technique as Plimpton, interviewing literally dozens of individuals. He, however, either skipped the enemies or Mr. Ritts had none since almost everyone-- family members, other photographers, models, friends, people in the business-- usually remember this fine artist as quite a decent guy. In over 300 pages Churchward creates a full biography of Ritts from his birth to his untimely death in 2002. He includes both the professional and the personal side of the photographer. We find out, for example, that Ritts seldom used a tripod or a lot of other photographic equipment. Then there are the photographs: some of Ritts' most iconic images as well as many photos of the artist with friends and family-- from his youth to shortly before his death.
Some interesting facts: Richard Gere, a close friend whose photograph of Mr. Ritts is on the dust jacket of the book, says that he doesn't think Ritts ever read books although he loved books, particularly books about photography. (Ritts had never heard of the British novelist Iris Murdoch until he did the absolutely hauntingly beautiful portrait of her in 1991.) Fellow photographer Bruce Weber whose work apparently influenced Ritts said that one can tell by looking at Ritts' photographs that he is Jewish. (That gets the strangest comment award in the entire book.) Also Annie Liebovitz hates the term "celebrity photographer"-- but isn't that what she is I ask. Drew and Derek Riker, the straight identical twins whom Ritts made famous with his nude shots of them, opine as to how they were always totally comfortable with him and never felt exploited in the least. Through his interviews with Fred Harding and Richard Gere, Churchward provides the history of how two of Mr. Ritts' early most famous photographs, "Fred with Tires" and Gere in front of the Buick with big tail fins happened.
That Mr. Ritts died so young and that we will never know what his autumnal photography would have looked like is sad. The circumstances surrounding his death are sadder. Although he had been HIV positive for several years, he seemed to be, to quote one friend, "fine." But his final illness appears to have been brought about by his exposure to a windstorm in the desert while doing a shoot of Ben Affleck. Then there is what happened while he lay unconscious in the hospital. Maria Shriver showed up with "the crosses and the beads," Madonna with "Kabbalah stuff." According to Allene Lapides, Ritts' aunt, his mother Shirley whom I would describe as a pistol of a woman, threw both women out of his room. Finally Mr. Ritts' brother Gary, who after doing drugs and jail time, became an evangelical Christian, reminds us that "he's [Herb] going to have to pay for his sins in hell, and he didn't have to." Mr. Churchward, to his everlasting credit, doesn't use much verbage from Mr. Gary Ritts.
While this book certainly has many things going for it, it cries out for a good editor to correct its errors. Examples: Cindy Crawford and David Fahey are quoted on page 31; then their same words are repeated on page 32. Somewhere in the book there is a two-page photograph with one of the subjects who is obviously a woman captioned as the photographer "Matthew Rolston," obviously a glaring mistake.
Errors, however, do not keep THE GOLDEN HOUR from being a beautiful book. The title refers to that short time in the day just after sunrise and right at sunset when the light is golden and so forgiving to subjects, Mr. Ritts' favorite time to take photographs. And sadly, as some writer in the Old Testment would say, his own sun set while it was still day.