Fame came early to Herb Ritts. One of the best-known fashion photographers before he was out of his twenties, Ritts was an instant darling of the newer generation of edgier designers. With his ability to make almost any subject look dramatic and interesting, Ritt created what he called Retro-Neo-Deco style and almost singlehanded wrestled Neo-Hellenistic male form back into fashion.
The image that comes to mind when Ritt’s name is mentioned was Fred with Tires, the above image of an impossibly muscular young man clad only in jeans that sag slightly below his waist. A rough and virile sexuality set against an evocative environment, the image became a runaway hit as a poster and was named one of the photos that changed fashion. The original photo shoot was intended for an Italian designer, but when Ritts received the clothing, he and his stylist rejected it and dressed his model in overalls instead. The pictures were not what the magazine requested, but it was so powerful they ran them anyway causing a sensation.
Ritt eschewed realism in making Fred appealing in the midst of all the sludge and grunge — makeup turned into grease and tires into something intrinsically mysterious. There were many details/entendres: converging lines of the torso, diverging lines of arms and tires, the oversized zipper, but the photo was not really posed. Ritts remembers:
“Each time I did assignments or editorials, I realized that I wanted to do something more. I saw that it wasn’t just about the clothes. Starting in 1984, I had an assignment for Franca [Sozzani], for a magazine called Per Lui, which was the counterpart of Lei. Lei was the most forward magazine in the early eighties, and it was because Franca was so great in encouraging everyone. I did a story called “The Body Shop”, which is where Fred with Tires emerged from. Franca had sent these really hideous raincoats, and I just hated them. I had hired an editor, a freelance named Michael Roberts, who now works at the New Yorker. We ended up going to Western Costumes and getting vintage jeans and overalls. We decided to do the body shop story at a greasy gas station. It was great fun. We turned in the pictures, and Franca almost had a heart attack. But she ran it, and it was a huge success. I still don’t know why it happened. It was just one of those honest pictures. I remember when we were shooting it. Poor Fred, who was a student, had to swing these heavy tires around, and at one point he was so tired he just turned around and stood there. It was the last frame of the shoot.
Indeed the photo happened in a moment of repose when the exhausted model just stopped and was saying, “Do I need to continue doing this? It’s killing me.”
(I rewatched Zoolander this Friday, and being who I am, instantly noticed a pastiche of this photo: Owen Wilson’s character who is a male model has a photo of him holding two tires).