Artist and Photographer David LaChapelle

David LaChapelle’s talent was spotted by Andy Warhol in the early 1980s. Since then LaChapelle has photographed a host of celebrities, placing them in his cinematic, dynamic and instantly recognisable photographs. In 2006 he cut himself off from that world, disillusioned by the increasing constraints that were being put on him and his photographic expression. Recently he returned to photography, this time pursuing it purely as an art form and a means to conveying the messages that the fashion world tried to contain. The Peninsula magazine meets the artist.

It is David LaChapelle’s first ever exhibition in Hong Kong when we meet. At a press preview the previous day he spoke eloquently and extensively about his newest works and his career, taking numerous questions from the assembled Hong Kong media. Yet in a private, one-on-one interview the following day he appears almost nervous. His hands move continuously and his eyes dart around the room that is just a few floors up from the de Sarthe Fine Art gallery where his inaugural Asian exhibition, entitled ‘The Raft’, is displayed. The arrival of his green tea is almost a relief for the artist as he has something to keep his hands busy, sipping frequently from the cup and refilling from the pot before it’s even out. But he soon relaxes and even lets out the occasional laugh; his hands cease their wringing as he speaks on a range of subjects, from his life’s work to his new-found freedom.

David LaChapelle began his successful career as a professional photographer for Interview Magazine, the publication founded in 1969 by Andy Warhol who discovered LaChapelle. Prior to being scouted LaChapelle had been exhibiting his work in New York City galleries, following a stint studying at the North Carolina School of Arts. At Interview LaChapelle began shooting the stars of the day, capturing on film some of the most famous faces of the times. With each successful portrait or fashion shoot came further offers from ever more prestigious titles and over what became a 20-year career LaChapelle took pictures of the likes of Madonna, Eminem, Elizabeth Taylor, Hillary Clinton, Muhammad Ali and Britney Spears, among many others, as well as directing music videos for Christina Aguilera, Moby, Jennifer Lopez, The Vines and No Doubt, staging live theatrical events and even financing and making a documentary film. He made it to the very top of his game.

But in 2006 LaChapelle departed from the world of fashion photography. He’d had enough. Having featured in magazines including Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and Vogue among many others, and released three books of his works, he notes that “it was time. I’ve lived my life pretty intuitively. The third book had come out and it was getting increasingly difficult to get my pictures published in fashion magazines because I was commenting, very paradoxically, about materialism. The constant subtext was getting heavier as I got older. I was looking at things and questioning things in more obvious ways than the magazines would prefer and the pictures were outgrowing the idea of what they were there for. The concepts were, in the eyes of the editors, interfering with the selling of what they were selling,” La Chapelle explains. So in 2006 he stopped working. Entirely.

At this pause in the interview a PR representative pops her head around the door to check that everything is going ok. “It’s awful” bellows LaChapelle with a grin. Though the green tea continues to flow from pot to cup at his behest, he seems to have relaxed somewhat. And that’s not just in the interview. Having moved his concentration away from fashion editorials and the deadline-filled world of publishing, he is today very content focussing on art, for art’s sake. “It’s what I started with. I started in galleries in the 1980s in New York. I love taking photographs. I love doing what I’m doing right now, exhibiting and making shows, or series of work, for museums and galleries. I find it really fulfilling and the challenges… well, it’s up to me to make it as challenging as I want to make it. If it’s not challenging that’s my own problem. The still image is as powerful as any other form of art. It has the potential and it’s just up to the artists to make that challenging.”

And that’s not the only thing. A certain carefreeness accompanies LaChapelle’s departure from magazines. “I find a lot of freedom with what I do right now, and a perfect balance, so I have time in my life for other things because I think that in order to be my best, just as a human being first of all, and as an artist secondly, you have to have balance. Hollywood isn’t something that interests me. Filmmaking doesn’t interest me,” he continues, referring to a foray into film where he created the documentary Rize, about a dance movement in South Central Los Angeles. “I still occasionally do a job that I guess is in the commercial realm if it fits into the schedule and it’s something fun and I have time for it. All the elements are in place and when it feels right, I’ll do that. but it’s only two or three days of my time, and the benefit of it is that is keeps my crew working.”

When LaChapelle first left the world of magazines he left it entirely. He stopped working. “I just really thought I was going to be a farmer. I did. I thought, I’m going to have this farm… but I knew I had more pictures in me left, so I was a little sad about that, but I didn’t have an outlet.” LaChapelle had never really considered going back into galleries but when the option was presented to him, he felt it was a revival of sorts. “It opened up this whole new world and a door that I didn’t think was open, which was gallery and museum exhibitions and so, since then, it really has been this rebirth. I am very committed to the pictures that I’m doing and really want to make them as clear as I can and communicate as well as I can, and that’s really the goal.”

In 2010 LaChapelle presented an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Taipei, Taiwan, organised by de Sarthe Fine Art, LaChapelle’s exclusive representation in Asia. In May 2011 he showed his work for the first time ever in Hong Kong in ‘The Raft’, exhibiting a collection of works which he made especially for the show. The overarching ideas behind the artworks were concerned with finding personal peace through whichever means, perhaps through faith or even by gaining enlightenment. The centrepiece of the exhibition, ‘The Raft of Illusion: Raging Toward Truth II’, is a collage made up of photographs taken by LaChapelle, cut-up and stuck together to show a raft in the raging currents of a storm at sea. “I really love collage,” says LaChapelle of his chosen medium, which harks back to his early days of exhibiting when he used the medium frequently. “It’s sort of tactile, the opposite of foundry-made work. To me there’s a little more of a human touch. Even though it’s photography, there is still this craft element that I really love.” LaChapelle photographed people on a raft on some rocks in Hawaii, many in uncomfortable positions to gain the energy and drama that he has always managed to capture so expertly, not only in this work but in photographs throughout his career. He then began to layer the cut-up the photos on top of one another. “I didn’t want to put it in the water digitally because I’d never worked that way before. I don’t think I would have been successful.” Instead he created lots of layers to get the feel of water, mainly using corrugated cardboard, “a humble material, I just find it really beautiful to work with and it gives the dimensions.”

There’s more to the piece than its medium too, as LaChapelle explains. “We all go through storms in our life and I’m just giving my personal interpretation. Things happen to us, dark times or storms through which we either drown and die, or we rise above, make it the shore and gain empathy or enlightenment,” he says of the striking work which comments too on society and the anxiety inherent in it as the world faces some of the greatest problems it has in recent times with the uncertainty of our planet’s future.

In keeping with the location of the exhibition, the show also featured three works featuring Bruce Lee, more typical in style of some of his magazine works and inspired by the film posters of Bruce Lee. These too were collage works but created in a different way with elaborate sets which included extremes of scale. Like most of LaChapelle’s works which often feature carefully designed sets, the resulting images are real and not digital composites and the shoots have been theatrically staged and photographed whole, with the features of the figure’s face adjusted to resemble Bruce Lee.

Despite similarities in the style of some of LaChapelle’s works today compared to the heyday of his career, it is nevertheless removed from his commercial projects. He is able to comment freely on society and the issues that matter to him through his art, and he can really concentrate on new pieces. “It takes a lot longer now, having quit working in publications. I spend a lot more time in the process of drawing and thinking about what a series will look like, or what particular images will look like and what they will incorporate. I go back and don’t like something and re-shoot it and get to spend a lot more time with it which is really nice; it’s a luxury from having to always make that deadline and that pressure. It’s a completely different way of working in a sense,” states LaChapelle. But he is quick to give credit to his career which has put him where he is today, and ultimately enabled him to work as a gallery and museum artist. “I learned everything with magazines. I cut my teeth on that. It was a really good place to learn how to communicate, get things done and if you want things to look a certain way, how to achieve that.”

Through art and balance, LaChapelle has found his personal peace. “I enjoy my life much more now. At the very beginning there’s the pressure of failure, and you’re not quite sure of what you’re doing. You are still experimenting and you don’t have all the tools in place. But I built a crew over the years, they become very loyal and it becomes much easier. You can start delegating. You don’t have to do everything yourself,” says LaChapelle, though he takes great pride in his work and, as he states later, he is “pretty hands on with what I do. I’m cutting those pictures up, gluing them on the walls and I’m really involved.” LaChapelle continues: “But then it got to a point when I just couldn’t say no, and I became this workaholic. I think part of it was fear instilled in me from not finishing high school. My mum was like, “You’re gonna be homeless”,” says LaChapelle with a laugh, “and that haunted me. I took everything. But, then again, there was freedom in that too. I didn’t wind up in debt like other photographers I know, and I was also able to finance a film that I really believed in.”

However, following the filming of Rize came a moment when he knew it was the end. Many things had come together to reveal to LaChapelle that it was time to move on. “I just couldn’t go on taking photographs of celebrities. It didn’t interest me anymore.” To coincide with this confluence of signals that it was the end of a chapter, LaChapelle’s dream house appeared on the market, a secluded farm in Hawaii that would mean he really could get away from it all. “I had always wanted a cabin in the woods,” states the artist, dreamily. “I’d always go to this little town in Maui to get away from everything,” he says of the rare occasions he was able to take a bit of time off from work. “I was there (in Maui) doing an advertising job and my friend told me there was a farm there fore sale,” recounts LaChapelle, his eyes bright like an excited child. “And I knew, just then, that this was what I was looking for. It’s a much better life now than I had before, much more balanced where I have more time to think, and more time to take care of myself. I’m much kinder to myself and, subsequently, everyone around me.” It is here that LaChapelle works and spends most of his time though he continues to keep a studio in Los Angeles for some of his more elaborate artistic ventures.

LaChapelle is at ease. He has reached a state of contentment, free from the pressure of working to the strict deadlines and fixed limits of publishing. It is almost as if, finally, he is able to create the images which over his extensive career he has been building up to, returning at the same time to the work that originally set him off on his path to success. LaChapelle has come full circle. Would he change any of it? That remains left unsaid. For now he’s just happy to be young and healthy and free to enjoy life. But it is clear he has some fond memories of moments from his career, as well as some important lessons which he learned along the way.

“People always surprise you as you photograph them. I never aspire to be friends with the people I photograph. I’m buddies with my crew, that’s like my family. But someone like Pamela Anderson…” recounts LaChapelle fondly, citing her genuineness, kindness and intelligence as the basis of a connection and resulting that has lasted over 17 years. One of the photographer’s early assignments was to photograph the Baywatch star during the television show’s first season. Working on several jobs together over the years, the two became firm friends and LaChapelle even later introduced her to Kid Rock, as he remembers with a laugh, going on to tell amusing anecdotes from the pair’s wedding. “You just can’t judge a book by its cover and you can never judge a person by what you think they’re about. You’re always going to be surprised.”

Tupac Shakur was another surprise assignment for the photographer. Having just come out of prison, LaChapelle expected “this real hardcore gangster thug, that was my stereotype.” The singer arrived two hours early for the shoot. “No rapper comes two hours early ever,” exclaims LaChapelle as he again reminisces warmly. “Six hours late, at least! I had been working with rap stars for a long time and none of them had ever come early in my entire experience.” Caught off guard, LaChapelle had been vague with the concept for his shoot. “I’d learned long ago not to tell people my ideas or what I was going to do because when you try to describe something visual it oftentimes falls very flat and there’s a million reasons to say no. And if you tell people ahead of time, they are going to say no to protect themselves. So I learned to be as vague or evasive as possible and put up these smokescreens about exactly what I was going to do on the day of the shoot,” explains LaChapelle. On this occasion he wanted to shoot Tupac Shakur as a slave, based around the idea that rap evolved from call and repeat to keep slaves from losing their minds in the fields where they were picking sugar cane or cotton. “One might yell out a lyric or limerick and another would answer back and they would amuse themselves that way and the day would go by faster. That’s what I had heard rap music’s roots were.” When Tupac arrived LaChapelle had a ploughed field, a mule, bales of cotton and a whole cast ready. He explained somewhat nervously to the rapper whose response was “Let me get this straight, you want to shoot me as a slave?” To LaChapelle’s relief he was “down with that” and “it was a beautiful day.” Again, LaChapelle learned never to judge someone from the outside.

While LaChapelle looks back somewhat nostalgically on these highlights of his career, it is clear that there were other moments that he does not remember in quite the same positive light. But all of that is behind him now and he has an incredible oeuvre to show for it, whether you agree with the criticisms that his work is purely commercial or accept that his skillful photographic compositions, both from the past and today, really can be regarded as art. And his oeuvre looks set to continue to expand. With his new-found freedom he strives further, to spend more time, convey his messages more clearly and to enjoy his work and life even more. Seemingly happy with his new found role and the potential it brings to extend his artistic expression and go back to his roots, LaChapelle is looking forward to showing his work next year in Singapore and is thrilled to be in such a receptive part of the world. “I think people here are very optimistic and you don’t find a lot of cynicism. I find a lot of receptivity and interest in the arts so it’s an exciting place and an exciting time to be exhibiting. I’m very lucky.”

David LaChapelle is represented exclusively in Asia by de Sarthe Fine Art, 8/F Club Lusitano Building, 16 Ice House Street, Central, Hong Kong.


Published: The Peninsula magazine, volume 8, issue 3, September 2011.