Jul 1, 2017

Fred with Tires: The Iconic West Hollywood Photograph

This is one of the iconic photos of West Hollywood.  Nearly everyone I knew had a print in their living room or bedroom.  It was a fixture in our homes, like the family photos that heterosexuals keep on their mantles:

A buffed young man carrying tires through an auto shop, his male-model face and expensive hairstyle contrasting with his working-class surroundings, a sweaty, macho, implicitly heterosexual grease monkey emerging from his closet, transformed into an object of homoerotic desire.  

He represented all of small-town joys that we left behind in the Straight World, and the much greater joys we found with our friends and lovers in our new home.

I didn't know where it came from until yesterday: it's "Fred with Tires" by fashion photographer Herb Ritts (1952-2002).

He grew up in a wealthy household in Los Angeles (his next door neighbor was Steve McQueen), and attended Bard College.  His photography career began in 1978, when he and buddy Richard Gere had car trouble on a road trip, and he began photographing the future star in front of their jalopy -- not shirtless but sultry, bulging, a canny evocation of working class machismo combined with pretty boy sensitivity.

The next year, a photo of John Voight made it to Newsweek.

Pleased with the critical reaction, Ritts began photographing other celebrities, such as Brooke Shields and Olivia Newton-John.  He specialized in female supermodels like Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford.  He published a number of books on fashion photography, and became a renowned expert in the field.

He was also a well-known commercial photographer, with work for Levis, Revlon, Brut, Chanel, Maybelline.

Although he was gay, out since college, in a committed relationship with partner Erik Hyman, his artistic emphasis was always on the feminine.  There are only a few male celebrities in his archive, and those few are rarely shirtless, displaying a sensuality but not overt eroticism.  This color photo of Justin Timberlake is an exception.

So how did we get "Fred, with Tires"?  In 1984, Herb hired a UCLA undergrad named Fred for a raincoat ad in the Italian magazine Per Lui.

 He hated the raincoats, so he had Fred pose in jeans instead.  The editor hated the photos -- too sultry, too erotic, too gay -- but ran them anyway.  And the last, taken when Fred was tired, sweaty, and little annoyed, anxious to finish up and go home -- perfectly captured the West Hollywood moment.

The original hangs in the Getty Museum, and prints became fixtures in our apartments, emblematic of home.

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