A swimsuit-clad Cindy Crawford seductively shaving k.d. lang's ''beard.'' A jewel-free Elizabeth Taylor exposing the brain-surgery scar on the left side of her nearly bald pate. Madonna, head reared back and eyes closed, on the cover of True Blue. These indelible images -- pop classics all -- were the striking results of a passionate interest in fame, artifice, and sensuality that made Herb Ritts, who died Dec. 26 of complications from pneumonia in L.A., one of the world's most sought-after celebrity photographers. (Ritts, 50, had been HIV-positive for many years, though his spokesman says his pneumonia was not directly AIDS-related.)
A self-taught shutterbug who earned an economics degree from New York's Bard College, Ritts pursued the hobby in his spare time during the '70s while working as a sales rep for his family's L.A. furniture business. But in 1979 he suffered a fateful flat tire in the California desert as he rode beside friend Richard Gere. An impromptu photo shoot that followed -- a sultry Gere, cigarette in mouth, stands with his arms raised above his head -- helped launch the careers of both men.
''He extended the tradition of the accessible celebrity,'' says Tim B. Wride, associate curator of photography at the L.A. County Museum of Art. ''You really got to look beyond the trappings.'' And considering his controversial print ads for fashion houses like Calvin Klein, those cast-off trappings frequently included clothing. He brought the same sexy aesthetic to videos, directing 1991 MTV Video Music Award winners like Janet Jackson's ''Love Will Never Do (Without You)'' and Chris Isaak's ''Wicked Game.'' ''There's this aggressive sensuality to his stuff,'' says Wride. ''It appeals to your head, your heart, and your groin at the same time.''