01/13/2003 at 01:00 AM EST
Elizabeth Taylor showed off her brain-surgery scar. Cindy Crawford cross-dressed. Madonna
clutched her crotch. Herb Ritts, says his frequent subject Sandra Bernhard, "shone the light on people and made them their most interesting."
The photographer, who died of complications of pneumonia at age 50 on Dec. 26 in Los Angeles, created many of the most memorable celebrity portraits of the '80s and '90s for glossy magazines (including PEOPLE). He was equally eloquent in music videos and advertising. His secret? "He didn't impose his personality," says Etheleen Staley, his longtime New York City art dealer. "He made people look beautiful and not artificial." The son of an L.A. businessman, Ritts (who grew up next door to Steve McQueen) got his big break in 1978 when he snapped his pal Richard Gere. Subjects turned friends, including Madonna
, k.d. lang and Arnold Schwarzenegger, joined Ritts's partner, attorney Erik Hyman, 34, at his bedside. "He created an atmosphere," says Bernhard, "that made you give it your all."