Born in Los Angeles Ritts began his career working in the family furniture business. His father, Herb Ritts Sr., was a businessman, while his mother, Shirley Ritts, was an interior designer. He moved to the East Coast and attended Bard College in New York, where he majored in economics and art history.
While living in Los Angeles, he became interested in photography when he and friend Richard Gere, then an aspiring actor, decided to shoot some photographs in front of an old jacked up Buick. The picture gained Ritts some coverage and he began to be more serious about photography. He photographed Brooke Shields for the cover of the Oct. 12, 1981 edition of Elle and he photographed Olivia Newton-John for her Physical album in 1981. Five years later, he would replicate that cover pose with Madonna for her 1986 release True Blue.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Ritts photographed celebrities such as Olivia Newton-John, Diana Ross, Christopher Reeve, Belinda Carlisle, Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, Madonna, Mariah Carey, Dalai Lama, Francesco Clemente, George Clooney, Cher, Mel Gibson, Elizabeth Taylor, Brad Pitt, Ronald Reagan, Julia Roberts, Stephen Hawking, Nicole Kidman, Tom Cruise, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dizzy Gillespie, Elton John, Richard Gere, Jack Nicholson, Cindy Crawford, David Bowie and Tina Turner.
He took fashion and nude photographs of top models Naomi Campbell, Stephanie Seymour, Tatjana Patitz, Christy Turlington, and Cindy Crawford.
He also worked for magazines: Interview, Esquire, Mademoiselle, Glamour, GQ, Newsweek, Harper’s Bazaar, Rolling Stone, Time, Vogue, Allure, Vanity Fair, Details, and Elle.
He published many books on photography for leading fashion designers including, Giorgio Armani, Revlon, Ralph Lauren, Chanel, Gianni Versace, Calvin Klein, Elizabeth Arden, Donna Karan, Cartier, Guess, Maybelline, TAG Heuer, Lacoste, Gianfranco Ferré, Levi’s, Victoria’s Secret, Gap, Acura, CoverGirl, Lancôme, and Valentino.
From 1996 to 1997 his work was displayed at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, attracting more than 250,000 people to the exhibit.
The first video he directed was Madonna in “Cherish” in 1989. In 1991, he won two MTV Video Awards for his work on music videos by Janet Jackson and Chris Isaak. Ritts also directed the music video for Michael Jackson’s “In the Closet”, which featured supermodel Naomi Campbell. He also worked on other projects, including directing and acting, on Mariah Carey’s video collection (1999), Jennifer Lopez’s sepia video “Ain’t It Funny”, Janet Jackson’s Design of a Decade 1986/1996 (1996), Intimate Portrait: Cindy Crawford (1998), Murder in the First (1995), Britney Spears’ “Don’t Let Me Be The Last To Know (2001) and Shakira’s Underneath Your Clothes.
On December 26, 2002, Ritts died of complications from pneumonia at the age of 50.