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Picks and Pans Review: Notorious

updated 12/21/1992 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/21/1992 01:00AM

Photographs by Herb Ritts

Memo to Madonna: Here's the guy you should have worked with on Sex. You know him well. Ritts photographed you for several magazine spreads, the Like a Prayer album and the prenuptial doings at your 1985 wedding to Sean Penn. (You probably want to forget that.) If he had done Sex, it would have had tone, gravity, the right tickle of weirdness, to say nothing of beauty—all things that this hook has and yours doesn't. Among his mordant black-and-white celebrity portraits there are also some terrific shots of you.

There. Now I have your attention.

Anvil black is Ritts's signature in Notorious. (Is the title an homage to Hitchcock's inky-dark movie of the same name?) Turn from one dusky portrait to another, from Michelle Pfeiffer in male drag to David Letterman cringing behind a football to Gary Oldman as a brooding Dracula to Axl Rose as a gamy angel, and you feel you're seeing these familiar faces emerge from the tar pit of their darker natures.

A book that feels like a midnight that never lifts—shades of Brassai, the great French photographer whose 1933 book Paris at Night was supposedly one of your inspirations for Sex. There's also a touch here of Lisette Model, the photographer who taught a generation to make each portrait a frame-filling presence. Notice the square-shouldered weight in Ritts's shots of Magic Johnson, the dagger that Cher's torso becomes when he photographs her in some black leather getup, or the boulder that he makes of Sinéad O'Connor's head. And in much of what Ritts does there's also a whiff of Model's most famous student, Diane Arbus. At play among the latest specimens of Hollywood celebrity, Ritts often finds the same spine-tingling strangeness that Arbus spotted everywhere around her. In that context, even his picture of Nancy Reagan is a little unnerving. Straight-backed, breakable-looking: the Stepford First Lady.

So c'mon, Madonna. Your hook could have had the same lustrous execution, the same shrewd perversity. Granted, his costs a little more. But how much you wanna bet the covers won't fall off? (Little, Brown, $75)

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