by Mary Barone
For the art world, the celebrated glamour photographer David LaChapelle (b. 1969) is a guilty pleasure. His sex-soaked color photos of celebrities and fashion models are just too high-key. Nothing is held back. The lily is not only gilded, but drenched in rhinestones, draped in haute couture and surrounded by the most exotic props imaginable.
It's about time. Minimalism is, like, so 40 years ago.
In addition to his photographs, the Los Angeles-based LaChapelle has made many music videos for performers ranging from Elton John to Gwen Stefani. He's published half a dozen photo books, most recently Artists & Prostitutes 1985-2005, a 688-page collection from Taschen that retails at an impressive $2,500.
LaChapelle's new photographs are on view at Tony Shafrazi Gallery in Chelsea in an exhibition titled "Awakened," Feb. 24-Apr. 28, 2007. The title photographs are a dozen life-sized portraits of what seem to be revival-camp followers floating in limbo or upwards to heaven (the subjects were posed in a large water tank). A related group of photographs depict a "Deluge" and are inspired by the Biblical narrative of the flood, though the events are transposed to the present day, with one mural-sized picture seeming to take place in Las Vegas.
Still another group of photographs, printed on a smaller and more intimate scale and displayed in their own back gallery, have a 1970s look. These works, dubbed "Drunk Americans," seem to be everyday snapshots of middle-class gatherings -- with the addition of a few drunk hayseeds with guns.
Despite his success as a commercial photographer, or perhaps because of it, LaChapelle's work is much in demand in art galleries (several pages of his photographs are displayed in the gallery section of Artnet, for instance). His works can be found at Guy Hepner in London and Los Angeles, Goss Gallery in Dallas, Jablonka Galerie in Cologne, Muruani & Noirhomme in Knokke, Belgium, and several others. The Palazzo Reale in Milan plans an exhibition of LaChapelle's works this summer.
LaChapelle's photos are typically produced in larger sizes in editions of three, and priced at $28,000, or in smaller sizes in editions of 10, priced at $8,500.
The following exchange is excerpted from an interview that was conducted at Tony Shafrazi Gallery on Mar. 3, 2007.
Mary Barone: Congratulations on Rize, your 2005 film about the "krumping" dance culture in Los Angeles -- it was astonishing and moving. Did any of those kids turn out to be stars?
David LaChapelle: Most of them are doing great, and a lot of them achieved their goals. Dragon's gone on to be a minister, Little C has danced in Madonna videos and Miss Prissy went on tour with Madonna.
We've had a lot of fun with the film, which became number one in Japan, beating out Mr. and Mrs. Smith. That was great, since this little film that cost us $1 million went up against this giant Angelina Jolie-Brad Pitt vehicle and won. It's pretty amazing.
MB: So what's going on with the "Deluge" series, and what's going on with "Drunk Americans"? These come from two very different places, I think.
DLC: "Drunk Americans" goes on while "The Deluge" is happening in the next room.
MB: The settings in the "Drunk Americans" photographs -- suburban living rooms and back yards, in the main -- look so 1970s. This is a mystery -- how did you set that up?
DLC: It's pastiche! I bought these old photographs on eBay and added figures and details. This guy here is actually a carpenter in my studio. His hair's bleached, so he looks like a Ken doll. This woman was already in the photo, but I added "Bush Kills" to her shirt.
But don't tell anyone. We don't want to take the magic out of them. . .
MB: You told an interviewer for Time Out that you wanted to move away from commercial photography and back to making art.
DLC: Yes, that's right. . . I did it, I had fun. . . but you can only do so much with that medium of fashion photography and celebrity portraiture, and now I feel like it's time to move on.
MB: You were born in New York?
DLC: I was born in Connecticut and came to New York when I was 15.
MB: Did you go to art school here?
DLC: No, I went to art school in Winston-Salem in North Carolina, a high school for the arts, and then I came back here and started working and I was using this woman's darkroom at 303 Park Avenue South -- it was Lisa Spellman, the dealer who now has a gallery named 303 -- and I asked her if I could do a show in her loft -- she was working for the fashion designer Jean-Paul Germain at the time -- and she said sure.
We all came back from Danceteria one night and I said, "You should call it the Lisa Spellman Gallery," and she said, "No, let's call it 303." So I did the first show at 303 in 1984, called "Good News for Modern Man," and then I did the third show there two months later -- we didn't know you should wait a year between shows -- called "Angels, Saints and Martyrs."
A lot of people came, and we sold a few things. Charles Cowles bought some and Andy Warhol came with the Interview crowd. After that I started working for Interview. I did Andy's portrait and I kept doing commercial work for magazines to make a living. Back then, a photo sold for something like $300 -- and not very many of them sold for that.
I really loved popular culture, and I photographed everyone I could get to sit still for me, which ended up including everyone I was interested in, basically. People ask me now, "Who do you want to shoot," and at this point there's no one. As far as celebrities go.
It ended for me with Paris Hilton. I loved the superficial emptiness, the blonde hair, the extensions, the contact lenses, the spray-on tan. . . she's so perfect.
MB: What about these photographs in "The Awakened" series, people who seem to be floating, up to heaven or into the light or. . . .
DLC: I'd been working so long with models who were quite conscious of the camera, and I wanted to find a way to make people unconscious of the camera (without feeding them "roofies" or knocking them out). I wanted to figure out a way to keep my subjects from posing. So I got this large tank and filled it with warm water, and it fit right in with the idea of "The Deluge" to have a series of images of submerged people. It's about the fear of drowning, or the end of the world, or fears of the flood of the future.
We were basically dunking them. Some of the people didn't even know how to swim. I went to Goodwill and got clothing that was really ill-fitting, sweaters and nylon pantyhose and flat shoes and stuff that looked pedestrian. I wanted it to look personal, not styled.
MB: What about the kid in the altar boy costume -- that's personal but not particularly Goodwill.
DLC: I really didn't want to put anybody in costume, but one of my friends said, "Why don't you do an altar boy," and I thought that was a good idea. I wanted to be careful about the clothes, because the project is about rebirth and the question is, are they dying or are they being reborn or are they being enlightened?
The water illuminates the event. The people in the tank are basically forced to relax, all they can see is a big blur. And they're not professional models -- I got people off Craigslist or went up to people at Trader Joe's and said, "Would you like to be in a dunk chamber?"
MB: The big "Deluge" photograph shows a vast flood in Las Vegas, overwhelming all these bodybuilders and pinup models. Where did this idea come from?
DLC: I was working on the Elton John show at Caesars Palace, and I felt like I was a slave, and I was reading a lot about Michelangelo, reading his whole life story, and he was working for the Pope and I began to imagine that working at Caesars Palace for six months was like being in ancient Rome. I had just finished Rize and was doing Gwen Stefani's Rich Girl video and it had been 11 months since I'd had a day off. I was on a treadmill. So that was it.
MB: So, "The Deluge" photographs are expressing some degree of ambivalence towards the human ideal as a mass-market commodity?
DLC: With Michelangelo we have the idea that physical perfection equals divinity. A lot of people in Los Angeles have perfect bodies, but when they all showed up after answering the ad on Craigslist, and I laid out all the Polaroids I took of them, it became clear that what worked for Michelangelo wasn't going to apply in the same way to contemporary photography. A nude in a photograph just means something completely different than a nude in a painting.
You can't help but look at people in photographs as if they're real. You check out whether the men are "cut" or not, you look at the size of the women's breasts, you look at the pubic hair. Michelangelo was able to make everyone look both generic and ideal, with no portraits of actual people there.
I think we're in a post-pornographic time, and nothing seems shocking, but everything remains carnal no matter what you do. We can only look at the people and their flesh and how beautiful they are next to each other. After all, perfect bodies of today are striving toward lines defined by the classicism of Michelangelo, which was derived from the classicism of Greece.
MB: One of your photos depicts a deluxe picture gallery that has been horribly flooded, and I thought it was the New Orleans Museum of Art for a second, but it doesn't have those pictures.
DLC: For me, "The Deluge" is about the craziness of being faced with danger, with imminent death, when every material thing is taken away. You have to find some sort of enlightenment when everything you value suddenly becomes worthless. Michelangelo's Deluge in the Sistine Chapel shows humanity at its best, people helping each other.
When we had 9/11 here in New York, people were so kind to each other, and it turned out that in the face of losing everything a calm came over people. At the moment of crisis there is an opportunity for enlightenment, and that's what happened on 9/11.
You can't really get very close to this idea on a fashion shoot. So I thought that if I was really going to do this project, I should show it in an art gallery.
MARY BARONE is a photographer whose "Out with Mary" regularly appears in Artnet Magazine.