How Photographer David LaChapelle Became a Pop-Art Icon – Rolling Stone

DAVID LACHAPELLE HAS plane to hold. This flight is going fast, and its approach is most noticeable by people associated with LaChapelle, in the ear of LaChapelle, who sits deep in a velvet sofa near the roaring fire of the Greenwich Hotel and orders tea and scones. “They’re crazy with truffle oil,” he explains, before happily turning to me. “You have to try one. I have never seen anything like this.”

That, of course, is what people often say about LaChapelle’s body of work, the Day-Glo-hued, semi-surrealist, visual bacchanals that, no matter what he is shooting – one of the many famous covers he did for this magazine. (see images below and the gallery above), a multi-edition, Kardashians’ Christmas card – able to combine high concept and pop art without a shred of criticism. He took a picture of Naomi Campbell naked soaking herself in milk and Pamela Anderson naked in a cage and Miley Cyrus naked in solitary confinement and Tupac naked in a bathtub. He relocated old gas stations to the Hawaiian rainforest for an Edward Hopper-inspired description of nature versus man. He cast random people he met at Trader Joe’s in his shots, and reinterpreted Titian. Rape of Europe and Campbell weeping beside the lamb (Rape of Africa, 2009). He has been called the “Fellini of photography” and a master photographer. He had an example of pushing a mother in a wheelchair down the Vegas strip.

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“He has a really, really disgusting look,” says Jodi Peckman, former executive director of Rolling Stone, adding that “the shots were like theatrical performances.” They were also often loud and fun: His East Village studio had a private bedroom where, he says, “people like Whitney and Bobby went to … um … hang out.” Peckman made sure to pair him with actors who were “passionate,” willing to play along and subvert their images, and be in on the fun.

Many of these images, and more, are on display at Make you believe, exhibition at New York’s Fotografiska Museum running until January 8, 2023 – this is the first time the building has been taken over by a single artist. But that’s not what LaChapelle, 55, wants to talk about as crazy scones arrive. No, what keeps him riveted to the chartreuse velvet like watch handles and watchmakers move “spiritual things,” he says. And not only religious paintings that characterized the work of LaChapelle, from the series of paintings called “Jesus Is My Homeboy” – which he repeated. The Last Supper in a kitschy townhouse – to his 2006 portrait of Kanye West wearing a crown of thorns. He wants to talk about true faith. Because here’s the thing: The snow is melting. Amazon is on fire. There are terrible things that people are trying to fight against, and LaChapelle doesn’t know what he would do if he didn’t believe that it was all part of some big plan. “I forget who said religion is the opium of many people,” he shares. “But I was like, ‘Okay, pass me.’

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What he wants to make clear is this: He is not making fun of religion but he trusts it deeply, professionally and personally. If there is an extract from Fotografiska’s presentation, it is not any comment about the customers (however present) or reputation (however present) or recognition (however so); it is LaChapelle’s unironic attempt to provide a balm, to capture the irresistible beauty of the divine, one image at a time.

That’s a LOT to fix, especially coming from the guy who once photographed Eminem naked with a dynamite dick. But hear him. He grew up with a Catholic father and an artistic mother who believed in a “forest cathedral” and “just did magical things,” putting his watercolors on the window to make it look like stained glass. They lived in rural Connecticut. They kept a big garden. They wandered through the forests. LaChapelle says he knew he was gay at the age of five, but he never came out to his family because he didn’t want to; they understood. At the age of 14, she and her boyfriend Kenny, who was studying at a nearby school, boarded a bus to the New York Port Authority and found their way to Studio 54, where they were rushed inside. “People always ask me, ‘How did you get into it when you were 14?'” he says. “I said, ‘We’re in because we were 14.’ That first night, somehow we got into the VIP room, and the Villagers were there, the Hemingway sisters, Bruce Jenner, Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Halston, everybody.

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By the time he was 15, he had given up on going to school where boys would throw milk cartons at his head for dressing like a cowboy. Attracted by the “utopia” of the East Village, he left home, crashing on 1st Street and 1st Avenue in the rent-controlled apartment of a woman named Vanessa, who worked at CBGB and was sometimes a spokesperson for the Plasmatics (“Wendy Williams. would be bound for a sledge hammer somewhere in the Midwest. Vanessa was climbing bus and go talk to the local press”). He bussed tables at a nightclub called Magique, and frequented the Art Students League on 57th Street. He went to the disco and danced and hung out at the Mudd Club, where Keith Haring would paint the door on his glasses, letting all the underage kids in. . One day LaChapelle’s father showed up to Vanessa to take her to audition at the North Carolina School of the Arts: “I’m like, ‘Dad, I’m in love with DJ!’ And he just laughed at me and said, ‘Pack your bag.'”

Photo by David LaChapelle

Free from cattle rustling, LaChapelle thrived at art school, where he switched from painting to drawing. After a year, he found his way back to Vanessa, with enough skill to eventually be hired by Warhol Conversation. He worked at Studio 54, where his writing style involved taking off his Polaroid shirt. She walked with her boyfriend, the actor Louis Albert, in a “semi-squat,” where she ran a wire through the window to catch electricity and took some of the first pictures in the Fotografiska show. He shot socialite weddings (“Mostly everyone is divorced, but I could live with one marriage for a year”). He thought he had reached heaven.

Then the AIDS crisis hit. “The hardest thing is that you couldn’t mourn your friends because you didn’t know you were going to be next,” LaChapelle says of this time. “You were so scared that you couldn’t even bring yourself to cry.” Instead, he withdrew $17 to take a bus back to Connecticut to swim in the lake near his parents’ house, which is where he was when he suddenly learned that Albert was going to die. “It was a fantasy I had before he got sick,” LaChapelle says. “Just knowing ‘Louis is not going to be here.’

Since many friends were dying, he began to think about where their souls were going, which he says, “actually brought me closer to God,” to the promise that “God is love” and “he is not the originator of disease. and sickness and death and suffering.” He found a dealer who agreed to make four sets of giant angel wings for $2,000 — “all the money I had in the world” — and began taking friends to Connecticut to claim them as angels, saints, and martyrs. where he used to go to meditate and pray. “I didn’t think that I had been here for a long time,” he says. “So I just wanted to make pictures, not for heritage, but just to have a purpose.” The invitation to his first show, which was held in 1984 in a high-end place for a friend from Fotografiska, had a picture of Albert. He died of AIDS a few weeks later, aged 24.

Photo by David LaChapelle

There are other things that happened. Although LaChapelle was not tested for AIDS for 12 years, when he did, he was surprised to learn that he did not have it. He worked with Act Up. He married a woman for reasons unknown even to him – “Well, we were doing a bit of Ecstasy at the time” – and followed her back to London, where he fell in with Leigh Bowery and Boy George. He took Warhol’s last painting. He has directed music videos and a feature film Rize, and started calling magazines to tell them who he wanted to shoot, unlike what usually happens. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, spent a few days in a psychiatric ward, and finally managed to get himself out just in time to direct a Mariah Carey music video. By the mid-2000s, he says, “I had these rules myself. I had to have three magazine covers out and a video in the top 10 on TRL. I was a working corpse.” In 2006, after a worker said they hadn’t had a day off in 11 months, he bought a former nudist colony in Maui on a shooting range and planned to lead more of his life off the grid. It worked, sometimes.


The pictures of angels are among the first to appear in the Fotografiska exhibition, but they are grouped with – and directly correspond to – recent ones: intricate tableaus of religious texts and iconography arranged in the lush forests of Hawaii. “Michelangelo said he found evidence of God in human beauty — and I would add to that quality,” says LaChapelle. “I see God in nature.” In fact, the recent photos are so religious that LaChapelle had reservations about showing them. “I was worried, to be honest,” he tells me, explaining that it’s like an exit he’s never had before. “This is when people are like, ‘Wow, he really likes Jesus and stuff.’ I was like, ‘Yeah. It’s true.’” He smiles, cute. “In the world of images, and fashion, if you want to shock someone, talk about Jesus.”

He wipes the scone to the great relief of the manager who puts him in the car to JFK. He will make his escape, of course. He will rest and go to heaven.


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