David LaChapelle began making photographs in the early Eighties in New York City while around him friends were dying of AIDS. His early black and white photos, shot by window light and manipulated in the darkroom through bleaching, burning or collaging, explored “metaphysical themes” of mortality and transcendence through religious imagery – winged figures, crosses and bodies bathed in a celestial light. After a hugely successful career as a commercial photographer, video director and documentary filmmaker, LaChapelle has recently returned to “metaphysical themes that still interest me.” In his keynote at PhotoPlus Expo, he showed the work he’s recently shown in galleries and museums: images using religious iconography, images of transcendence, and vintage work that was rarely seen. Since 2005, he has not shot a fashion assignment. “I didn’t burn out, as some people have written. I walked away.”
While showing the audience an early photo he made as a memorial to a friend who died of AIDS at the age of 24, LaChapelle explained, “I didn’t think I’d be around very long. I wanted to give the world something of beauty.”
A high school dropout with “nothing to fall back on but photography,” LaChapelle was driven to work hard at his art. He called the period of the early Eighties his “Dark Ages” because he spent a lot of time “in the darkroom and in nightclubs.” In 1987, he began shooting color, and manipulating the images physically by adding Scotch tape, paint and collage elements. He earned money working in a nightclub, and he also shot weddings, an experience he says, “enriched me so much because it taught me to shoot under pressure.”
A small exhibition he and a friend put on caught the attention of Andy Warhol, who asked LaChapelle to shoot for Interview magazine. On his first assignment, he photographed a new band called The Beastie Boys, photographing them in black and white, on the street near Times Square. “Interview opened up a world to me, it was the most important pop culture magazine in the world.”
With that simple photograph, LaChapelle said, “the magazine time of my life began.” He then showed a parade of his often outrageous portraits and fashion shoots for editorial clients like Vanity Fair and Vogue, all shot in bright poppy colors: Elizabeth Taylor, Madonna, Tupac Shakur, L’il Kim, Paris Hilton. Many of these images were collected in his books LaChapelle Land and Hotel LaChapelle.
Some of these images were “just escapist,” LaChapelle said, but others grew out of deeper concerns. As a medium for expressing himself, “The magazine replaced the gallery in my mind.” After 30 years of picture taking, he noted, “You feel different things at different times.” Throughout his talk, LaChapelle advised the audience to listen to their intuitions. “We have to rely on our voice within us. Or call it the subconscious. Through prayer or meditation or however you get there, it has to be quiet to listen to it.”
By the end of the Bush administration, LaChapelle wanted to explore some new ideas. He bought boxes of discarded family photos from eBay and began manipulating them to add fashion to the images, and a few other twists. Showing a snapshot of a family sitting on a couch in front of an American flag with a coffeetable full of half empty liquor bottles, he explained that he titled the series of “Drunken America” because at the time, the administration and the country “were drunk on power.” After he published the manipulated party photos and family snapshots, editors at magazines began asking, he said, “Where are we going with these photos?”
LaChapelle then told the story behind the last editorial assignment he shot. In 2005, he visited his mother in Florida and, as he left for a shoot, she and his sister were putting up hurricane windows in preparation for the third hurricane in a year. He recalled thinking, “The climate is changing and we’re shopping.” In April of that year, he shot a fashion story for Italian Vogue (he said he snuck onto a movie studio set for “The War of the Worlds”) showing models in a landscape of destruction, and standing near a wall of sandbags. The issue hit the newsstands right at the time Hurricane Katrina swept across the Gulf Coast, flooding New Orleans. The press saw it as an allegory. While it wasn’t about Katrina, “I was thinking about hurricanes when I shot this.”
LaChapelle decided to stop shooting for magazines. “The pictures weren’t fitting their agenda.” He decided to move to Maui. At that point, he says, “I thought I wasn’t going to take pictures any more which made me sad.” Then galleries called.
In his fine art work, he continued to create images referencing modern politics. For example, around the time that Lehman Brothers collapsed, he exhibited a series of images of currency manipulated in the darkroom so dark colors were light, light colors were dark; he called them “Negative Currency.” He took an image of a mosque and pasted penny candy all over it in color-by-number style. He created an image of a flooded museum, which he called an exploration of art as something other than a commodity. He revisited some early collages made during the AIDS crisis in which he made images of bodies into loops that formed a giant paper chain. Using the techniques used to make standing displays in movie theater lobbies, he had images printed on cardboard and added to diarama-like installations in galleries His “Awakened” series, recalls some of his earliest work. He photographed models underwater in pools, with light streaming from above. “I don’t think they’re about death. I think they’re hopeful.”
He showed a video of the making of the images in his 2006 book Heaven to Hell, which shows Courtney Love in a Pieta pose, holding a man’s body. (The video records LaChapelle explaining to Love what a Pieta is, and her grousing, “I know what it is.”) For the final image, LaChapelle and his crew of assistants and set designers used flammable materials to burn the set down. After a few frames, LaChapelle has to run from the heat. “The pieta has always been the symbol of the greatest loss. What I was doing with these variations was commemorating these small deaths,” including those of two friends who died of drug overdoses.
His mission remains the same as in his early career. “If you ask not what you’ll get but what you want to give, then you’ll be fulfilled.”He noted, “We all have something to say we all have something to give. To find that out, we have to be alone, we have to turn off electronics.”
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