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Despite being criticized for being too commercial, offensively provocative and grotesque, David LaChapelle is an essential figure in photography, having been wildly successful working with the biggest names in the entertainment and fashion worlds, contributing his exuberant ideas, boundless creativity and distinctive style. Constructing decadent sets, he staged his models against baroque and delirious backdrops to produce visually-compelling images, each unique in their narrative and evocative content. He has the ability of making his subjects push their characters yet brings across his point with stereotypes associated with their image. He has depicted a turbaned Elizabeth Taylor looking like a $5 fortune-teller, Courtney Love as Virgin Mary, Lady Gaga wearing only screaming headlines, a Michael Jackson impersonator as a misunderstood martyr, Angelina Jolie in various states of undress and Pamela Anderson baring all in a room plastered with her Playboy spreads. As one of the world’s most in-demand photographers and directors for advertising and publishing, LaChapelle’s imprint is everywhere, having set new standards for glamorous, celebrity portraiture. He has immortalized Madonna, Elton John, Naomi Campbell, Lil’ Kim, Uma Thurman, David Beckham, Paris Hilton, Hillary Clinton, Muhammad Ali, Britney Spears and Alicia Keys, to name just a few. At the pinnacle of his success, a LaChapelle photo was a badge of being hip and adventurous, and all the hot young stars – from music, film or fashion – wanted him to take their photo, direct their video or shoot their movie.
So why did LaChapelle go from over-the-top hyper-sexed photos and an appetite for an existence without limits or taboos to life on a Hawaiian island away from the tabloids, eating and gardening bio and meditating in the morning? He has made the switch from fashion photography back to fine art, having gone from being in love with everything he was working on to questioning everything he was doing. He had nothing left to say in the realm of fashion and his themes became increasingly difficult for magazines to digest. A maniacal perfectionist, he was also a complete workaholic and worked 14-hour days for months on end without taking a day of vacation, finally losing himself as he didn’t know how to say “no”. The long hours in the studio, his obsessively detail-oriented personality and binge drinking took a toll on him. He knew he couldn’t continue working at that pace. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, was convinced that he had AIDS and, when a self-financed critically-acclaimed documentary, Rize, about an urban dance form originating from the rough neighborhoods of South Central Los Angeles failed to find a large audience, he called it quits, packed his bags, left his homes in New York and Los Angeles and disappeared on a self-imposed exile, trading in his high-flying photographic career for a former nudist colony-turned-working organic farm in the middle of the jungle in a remote area of Hawaii. The thought of not having to work for pop stars or magazines anymore was liberating. That was in 2006.
Today living and working in Maui, the 51-year-old fashion retiree has reignited his photography career by creating images that one would never equate with his more commercial work, contemplating the complicated and often destructive society in which we live. He has come full circle: his wish to revisit a period in the early ’80s before life was tainted by tragedy motivated him to return to the art he made when he first moved to New York, having started his career showing work in galleries and loft spaces. Rather than documenting events head-on, he injects beauty into them in a signature style that doesn’t shy away from intense colors and well-known faces. He uses many of the tricks of the trade he had learned working commercially over the years to attract, rather than repel, people. However, having made such a big name in the commercial arena over the last two decades, he didn’t think that the art world would accept him, as he’s still a polarizing figure for many and believes his work doesn’t look like art, but belongs in a magazine. Nonetheless, art gallery exhibitions came along and they offered him an opportunity to produce new work.
LaChapelle’s style is hyper-saturated, theatrical, surrealistic and a combination of art history and contemporary pop culture. Inspired by Michelangelo’s The Deluge fresco in the Sistine Chapel, he created a series of flood-inspired shots. He followed this up with The Raft, where his team constructed a raft from wooden planks and rusty barrels, for a photo influenced by Théodore Géricault’s 1819 painting, The Raft of the Medusa, displayed in the Louvre. He explains how he decides on the subject matter of his artworks, “Inspiration comes from within. Energy is all around and in us. We can tap into it, this river of endless possibility if we are open to being a conduit. The idea comes as if in a dream or a daydream into our consciousness. The meaning is then revealed to the intellect. I am more compelled to make images than inspired. It is a calling. The idea or vision dictates whether it is male or female. The vision is already complete. It is my task to then construct this and manifest it on the material plane.”
Having horrified many with his Fellinian visions of life, love, sex and even the Gospels, LaChapelle returned with a Last Supper collection in wax in 2009. Obsessed by the question of notoriety, after vandals had attacked the Dublin Wax Museum, he travelled there to make a record of the massacred lookalikes, which led him to investigate wax museums in California and Nevada. His photographic fresco reinterpreting Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper precisely places the bodiless heads and expressive, yet completely detached, hands of the models of Christ and his apostles in cardboard boxes, compositionally representing the original masterpiece in an accurate yet startling contemporary way. Ten years after his iconic Jesus is My Homeboy Last Supper with the apostles represented by young tattooed men wearing baseball caps and drinking beers, melding street art and religion, he continues to contemplate the resurgence of the spiritual in our material-dominated society. While the series sparked scandal from some who argued that his representations were blasphemous or disrespectful, the artist asserted that any negative reaction simply reflected the biases of a contemporary audience unable to imagine a Christ of today.
Offering a strange and profound spectacle, the Still Life series tackles the dark side of pop culture and the political world, from Leonardo DiCaprio to John F. Kennedy and Lady Diana – here reduced to eerie portraits of forgotten wax mannequins, damaged or simply condemned to museum storage closets – a reflection on the fleeting nature of fame, celebrity and power. These disfigured human “still lifes” also relate to our fascination with the downfall of our once lionized heroes. The hyper-realistic style of the images confers a feeling of authenticity on these damaged imitations, made all the more disturbing because LaChapelle had photographed many of these people in real life. Still Life expands on the idea of Earth Laughs in Flowers, still life works exploring contemporary vanity, vice, the transience of earthly possessions and the fragility of humanity.
LaChapelle has photographed hundreds of celebrities, always depicted provocatively, usually in full or partial nudity. His use of the erotic facet liberates the representation of the female body from pornographic connotations, from the association of nakedness with sin and from the correlation of lust with sexual gratification, abuse and humiliation. He hopes that his female nudes convey the message that “we are more than our bodies; there is more to us than the physical”. He describes the greatest challenge he faces when depicting the female figure: “Staying true to the intention, making a pure translation of a given vision, which is like being handed something precious to be carried or delivered to another destination.”
LaChapelle’s approach to the body, whether female or male, is the same: “The essential order of life is a balance of the masculine and feminine. When this order is upset, the repercussions are an affectation of well-being (illness), be that in an individual or a society. The most important consideration is what is being communicated – what feelings or thoughts are being transferred to the viewer – through what has been created. My goal is clarity of intention.” At the end of the day, he wants to touch people with his art, to have them come out of the gallery feeling differently than they did when they had gone in. He feels that people gain enlightenment through art: teaching them about themselves, the era they live in and their culture.
In homage to Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe, LaChapelle frequently uses transsexual model Amanda Lepore, braving the controversy over plastic surgery and gender roles. He views her as a celebrated figure who has risen to stardom by changing genders, and acknowledges her multiple plastic surgery procedures with her overly-exaggerated features, thereby confronting the hypocrisy and double standard regarding sexuality. In the famous photograph where she sniffs diamonds, she represents a model of radical addiction to glamor. How does LaChapelle photograph someone who was born in a male body yet rejected it, fulfilled her dream and became a woman, which ultimately represents an extraordinary truth and sincerity? He replies, “Transsexuals are special beings. To me, they are like goddesses: brave, beautiful, mysterious. They possess both energies.”
LaChapelle always knew he wanted to be an artist. He got his first glimpse of photography at an early age from his mother, who was an amateur photographer and would pose him in the most unlikely of situations. Growing up in suburban Connecticut, he spent lunchtimes in the art room to hide from bullies, then dropped out of high school and ran away to New York City at the age of 15. His first job was a busboy at the legendary club, Studio 54, where he met Warhol, who was his mentor until the day he passed away. His father came and got him and, after a year in art school in North Carolina where he fell in love with photography, he returned to New York at 18 (when new art stars such as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat were emerging), became an East Village fixture and began a commercial photography career with a job at Warhol’s Interview magazine, first shooting The Beastie Boys in Times Square. The art world and the club scene were very tightly connected back then, and his early days as a photographer were a heady whirl of partying, drugs and sex; he came of age in Manhattan when the AIDS pandemic was decimating the creative community. Before long, he was shooting for the top editorial publications and producing some of the most iconic advertising campaigns of his generation. After establishing himself in commercial photography, he moved into stage production, documentary filmmaking and directing music videos for artists like Moby, Jennifer Lopez and No Doubt, including the notorious video for Christina Aguilera’s single Dirrty.
These days, LaChapelle has been concentrating on Paradise, an ongoing series using paradise as a metaphor for enlightenment and heaven that he has been working on since 2009, which is influenced by the natural environment, reflecting his spiritual regeneration. Many of these images are based around the theme of paradise regained, with Maui’s lush rainforest serving as an Eden-like backdrop. Religious symbolism and art historical references are present in this new work, but he hasn’t lost his penchant for celebrity, gloss or controversy. Part of his genius and why he had excelled in the field of advertising was that he frequently incorporated metaphors with a moral, religious motifs or recognizable elements from works by the great masters, from the Middle Ages to the present – foreign to the world of magazine advertising and contemporary photography.
Having worked for a long time to get to the point where he had the confidence to take pictures just for himself, LaChapelle now takes photos to reach more people, with a vision that’s pure because he’s doing something that excites him and not worrying about what others think. All those years working commercially, he had wanted to capture America’s obsessions – celebrity worship, materialism and the things that it was thinking about collectively as a nation – and chronicle the people who defined an era. Today, he can create an image without having to sell anything but his idea – there’s no inclusion of someone else’s product or celebrity unless he chooses to put it there. His critical voice is free and he doesn’t have to subliminally embed subplots; everything can be overt. He still works occasionally with advertisers, though, to help fund his artwork. So while being heavily entrenched in the fashion world has, historically speaking, been a no-no in the fine-art and auction-house worlds – you couldn’t be a commercial photographer and show in galleries – LaChapelle has crossed that line and shows no signs of turning back. Where once he took pictures for a magazine that wound up in a gallery, he’s now doing the reverse: taking pictures for a gallery that wind up in a magazine.