This interview was conducted prior to the Herb Ritts exhibition at the Fondation Cartier pour l'art Contemporain in Paris, December 11, 1999—March 12, 2000.
There will be an exhibition of your work at the Fondation Cartier a few months from now. This is the first time your photographs are being shown in Paris, as far as I know.
Yes, as far as I know this is the first exhibition in Paris. There was a previous show in Cahors, France, for the Printemps de la Photographie.
Paris is a city where the culture of photography is quite strong, and you know the place quite well. How do you feel about showing your pictures there?
I'm very excited about it. I'm somewhat surprised it hasn't happened before. I've had many shows. But this is the right moment, the right time, the right venue. Generally, the French highly promote culture and the arts, and photography is in their blood. The Cartier Foundation is the kind of institution that invites the public to a different sort of show, not the standard museum outing. And what excites me most is the type of public, the fact that the Parisian people have a broader cultural understanding than many Americans do. The education, the cultural awareness, is different in Europe, especially in France, from that in the United States. So I think the public will be much more appreciative of many images. A Parisian wouldn't even think of asking, "Why is this person naked?" They understand the body. They're confronted with art, with painting, sculpture, and history, daily. Photography is obviously an extension of this.
You grew up in L.A., which is, in a sense, the first dream factory in the world. Were your parents close to the Hollywood milieu and to film?
Not really. We grew up in Brentwood, in West L.A. At the time, when I was a young boy in the fifties and sixties, it was a very low-key place to grow up. It was upper-middle-class; not suburban, but not Hollywood, either. I did grow up next door to Steve McQueen, who was a very famous movie star at the time, but as a kid it didn't impress me. We always had great fun with him. He would take us out on Sundays on his motorcycles, riding around in the desert; he was like a second father. My father was a furniture designer and manufacturer, and my mother worked with him in the sales and interior design side of the business. So they weren't in the film business at all-only through Steve McQueen and other people they knew. An Elvis Presley movie, Blue Hawaii,had a lot of the Ritts Company rattan furniture in it. It was very popular.
Did you go to the sets of films like Blue Hawaii?
No, I was too young. I remember no influence in that sense. McQueen was just our next-door neighbor. I never was on the set with him; I never knew that side of him.