In the 1980s, Ritts—along with his contemporaries Robert Mapplethorpe and Bruce Weber—provoked a radical change in how the nude was depicted. Mapplethorpe reinterpreted the nude in classical terms or in explicit ways calculated to shock. His photographs, regardless of their content, were presented as art. Weber's work for such clients as Calvin Klein radiated warmth and broke new ground in making male sexuality commercially appealing.

Ritts's forte was his ability to analyze the body from a variety of angles and create compositions that abstracted it in ways that communicate strength and poise. Mostly working outdoors, Ritts enjoyed relating the body to the natural world. He rendered his nudes with verve and an overriding elegance that became hallmarks of his pictures.
Stephanie, Cindy, Christy, Tatjana, Naomi, Hollywood  / Ritts
This photograph of the top models of the period—Stephanie Seymour, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Tatjana Patitz, and Naomi Campbell—became an emblem of the 1990s era of the supermodel. It was the atmosphere of trust that Ritts created in his studio that enabled him to convince his sitters to disrobe. "You knew you were going to look gorgeous," Cindy Crawford told an interviewer. "The way Herb Ritts photographed you was the way you wanted the world to see you." (quote from Herb Ritts: The Golden Hour, by Charles Churchward, 2010).

Man with Chain, Los Angeles / Ritts
Tony Ward is seen bending at the waist, as if struggling under the chain's weight. Posed before a simple backdrop, his body is isolated for the viewer's delectation—his black hair shines, his muscular arms and legs bulge—caressed by the hard sunlight that warms and illuminates. The extraordinary sense of movement is not only forward but also upward in a tortuous S-curve that has been long associated with the dramatic, writhing bodies of 17th-century Baroque painting and sculpture.

Pierre and Yuri, Los Angeles / Ritts
Shot against a black backdrop and meticulously lit, this photograph represents two members of the San Francisco ballet locked in a somewhat circular pose. One dancer is falling back and the other is raising himself up, supporting his partner with great vigor and poise. The inherent symbolism of trust in these interconnected men would not have been lost on Ritts, who drew strength from his long-time partner, Erik Hyman, and his close-knit circle of friends.