Best known for his surreal celebrity portraits, startling fashion spreads, and theatrical rock videos, photographer David LaChapelle cut his teeth in New York’s downtown art scene—showing at edgy galleries, such as 303, 56 Bleecker, and Tomoko Liguori—long before becoming a commercial success. Once he became a sensation in the magazine and music worlds, higher profile galleries started exhibiting his unique brand of provocative photography, which opened the door for an escape from publishing and a return to fine art. In 2006, he bought a farm in Hawaii and hung up his commercial camera—at least partially, as he still takes on such glam jobs as photographing the Kardashians for their 2013 Christmas card. FLATT contributor Paul Laster recently caught up with the artist in Maui to discuss the full arc of his amazing career.
PAUL LASTER: You started out as an artist showing at 303 Gallery when it was actually at 303 Park Avenue South in 1984. How did that come about?
DAVID LACHAPELLE: I told Lisa Spellman that she should open a gallery in her loft space. I was the first show and the third show—we didn’t know that you should wait a year.
PAUL LASTER: What kind of work were you making then?
DAVID LACHAPELLE: It was all black and white, obviously analog, with a lot of experimentation in the darkroom. A lot of my friends were dying from AIDS at that time. I was trying to photograph the un-photographable—the soul and eternity. What happens when someone dies? Where do we go? I was trying to capture the idea of life after death.
PAUL LASTER: Was that the origin of your photographic work?
DAVID LACHAPELLE: Those were the first pictures that I exhibited. I was very young—17 or 18. I called the series Angels, Saints and Martyrs.
PAUL LASTER: Your 1991 exhibition at Tomoko Liquori Gallery, Facility of Movement, featured the Circle, Chain of Life, and Mobile Fabric pieces that you later showed at Lever House in 2010. The exhibition addressed the AIDS crisis through an inventive use of image making. What was the message that you were trying to convey?
DAVID LACHAPELLE: Those were photographic installations using the nude male figure. I was working in color and I manipulated the negatives. I printed them myself, cut them up and tore them out and hung them in ways that looked like ascending spirits. I was trying to make work that would resonate with people. They are pictures of people I knew and intuitively shot. The AIDS crisis had affected me hardcore. Most people living in New York at that time were affected, but my boyfriend died in 1984. It was tough because I wasn’t sure how long I would live. I wanted to put some pictures out in the world—not in the sense of wanting to leave something behind, but wanting to give the world something while I was here. I worked fast and furious. I didn’t play around much. I loved going to clubs like Paradise Garage to dance, but that was a release for me. I was a pretty straight arrow, spending more time in the darkroom than on the dance floor. The dance floor was a communal way to release the sadness. There really was an historic cloud hanging over Manhattan. Making these pictures helped me get through it.
PAUL LASTER: Circle, with all of the little bodies, looks like bacteria in a petri dish.
DAVID LACHAPELLE: Exactly! A reproduction of the AIDS virus was shown on the cover of Time in 1985 and we were seeing representational images of it through microscopic photographs all over the place. I took this idea and made it about life—of figures swimming in a petri dish as a symbol of life and the specter of death. It was about being contagious—like we were all contaminated and dirty, which is how people looked at us. We had to do a lot of work on ourselves to not feel that way. Part of that is this collection of pictures in a petri dish. I’m so glad that you brought it up. No one mentioned it then. It was light years ahead of its time. There wasn’t anything like it in photography and it was completely ignored. No one knew what to make of it back in 1991. No one was doing that kind of experimentation in photography and installation. For me, that picture was erasing the shame and contamination and making the male figure beautiful again. It was a gift to society—not a curse or something to be feared.
PAUL LASTER: How did you hook up with Andy Warhol and Interview and what did you do there?
DAVID LACHAPELLE: The pictures in the first show at 303 were around three-to-four hundred dollars and we didn’t really sell that many. I had to make a living and Interview was one of the most important magazines for photography and popular culture. Several people from the magazine came to the show—including Marc Balet and Paige Powell—and they asked me to do some photography for the magazine. Soon I was working there regularly. They put up with a lot. I was quite bratty. It was a very social scene. Andy often invited me to lunches with celebrities and clients. Looking back, it was really magical. There was the AIDS crisis, but we had to push on and keep living. If we had only focused on the pain, we would have never gotten out of bed.
PAUL LASTER: Is that when you started doing commercial photography?
DAVID LACHAPELLE: Yeah, I started working for several publications and just took it and ran with it. At that time you couldn’t do commercial photography and artwork as well. You had to choose one or the other. I was a friend of Robert Mapplethorpe’s brother Eddie and he told me that Robert’s gallery did not want him doing commercial jobs. There wasn’t the kind of cross-pollination that we have today, where nobody blinks an eye at you doing both. Hardly anyone collected color photography at the time and that’s what I was making, saturated color prints. I realized that I might be burning a bridge with the galleries by working for magazines, but it’s been said, “sometimes you get the best light from a burning bridge.” I had 20 to 25 years to grow up. I wasn’t ready for all that the art world entails. I needed that time to mature. I did the work that I was supposed to do. I learned how to communicate and got better at photography. I still love the work I made in the ‘80s and ‘90s. It doesn’t look trendy or from a particular time. Once I decided to commit myself to magazine work I said, ‘Hey, if I’m going to do this I’m going to drop the bomb in the magazine world. I’m going to do something that’s never been seen and change the way it looks,’ and I was able to do it.
PAUL LASTER: I saw your shows at 303 and Tomoko Liquori, but the work that made the biggest impact was the photos that you did for Diesel. There’s an ingenious quality to that work that carries all the way through to recent work. What do you look at in terms of art and film and other things to inspire you?
DAVID LACHAPELLE: I don’t set out to look for inspiration. Things just seem to drop in my lap. Take for example my new work, which started with the idea of making gas stations and then oil refineries. I was just sitting on the steps of my house in Maui and began imagining a little glowing temple, a glowing building, in the jungle and I turned to my friend—luckily he’s an artist and a collaborator—and he understood. Ideas are fragile when they are first born. You have to be careful whom you share them with, because people can squash them. I said, “What do you think of this idea of gas stations glowing in the jungle at night that are made out of cardboard, but look like temples from a forgotten civilization?” He loved it. Three years into it, I now understand what they are about. I’m not sure where the inspiration came from. I wasn’t looking for it. It was more intuitive—like being a conduit in a way—at least that’s how it feels. Later, after spending so much time on these images, in every stage of development, I realized that they had greater meaning. But the idea came from an image that just popped into my head.
PAUL LASTER: When you do editorial photography with rock stars, actors and models do you come up with the concepts or do the art directors come to you with their ideas?
DAVID LACHAPELLE: No, no…I usually come up with the concepts—that’s the fun part!
PAUL LASTER: Whose idea was it to photograph Kanye West as Jesus in the Passion of the Christ series?
DAVID LACHAPELLE: That was my idea.
PAUL LASTER: It was way ahead of its time.
DAVID LACHAPELLE: He didn’t even know about the story when he came to the studio. I guess I planted a seed there. He certainly took that idea and ran with it. I’m happy to keep one foot in the commercial world. I wouldn’t want to leave it completely behind. When I stopped in 2006 and moved to Maui, I missed it. I occasionally dip my feet back in the water, but I’m happy that it’s not my entire world anymore. I wouldn’t want to be there. I really walked away. I was one of the highest paid photographers in the world. I had contracts with Vanity Fair and Italian Vogue and worked for Rolling Stone. I got amazing jobs, but I just quit. Everyone said, “You’re crazy,” but you have to follow your heart. I didn’t know that I would be able to go back to galleries because I was still in the mode of thinking that you couldn’t do both. That’s where my head was. I just quit to move to Maui and start a sustainable farm, which we have going now. I never thought that I would do another gallery show, but when that opportunity came up I was so happy. I took everything that I had learned working at magazines and over the past seven years, applied it to my art. It’s given me a great new chapter.
PAUL LASTER: Do you work with a crew like you would have on a film or an editorial shoot for a magazine?
DAVID LACHAPELLE: Yeah, there’s the scenic crew, model builders, lighting people, photo assistants, hair and make-up people, wardrobe crew, etc. I’m lucky to have a great group of people that are very talented, very skilled and very nice.
PAUL LASTER: The House at the End of the World series mixes high style with the destructive force of nature. Where did you shoot the series and for whom?
DAVID LACHAPELLE: I shot it on the War of the Worlds film set on the Universal lot for Italian Vogue.
PAUL LASTER: Oh wow, I thought it was shot in New Orleans.
DAVID LACHAPELLE: No, it was actually on the newsstands when Katrina hit New Orleans. It was shot in April of that year. There’s a very chilling picture in the spread of three girls handing each other sandbags by a levy and the editor of Italian Vogue was quite upset. People were critical of us for using a catastrophe for a fashion picture. She said, “In the future just tone it down and focus on the dress—be less conceptual.” She told me, “People think these pictures are about hurricanes.” And I said, “They are about hurricanes.” I had just been at my Mom’s place in Florida, where there had been a big hurricane. That’s where I got the idea for the pictures. It was the last fashion story I did. That’s when I knew that I was going to stop.
PAUL LASTER: You made Deluge and the After the Deluge: Museum series after you slowed down from commercial work. Were those series based on the idea of a hurricane and flood?
DAVID LACHAPELLE: Deluge and the After the Deluge: Museum are about the great disruption. It’s about the end of the world and great changes for humankind. Of course, the world still goes on. Deluge was inspired by the ceiling fresco by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. In the picture everyone is helping one another, even as the floodwaters rise.
PAUL LASTER: Your Recollections of America series looks like documentary photography of redneck Americans over indulging on booze, but I have the suspicion it’s staged. What’s the back story on that project?
DAVID LACHAPELLE: I was doing a fashion story and was thinking about George Bush being drunk on power. He was talking about the “Axis of Evil” and pushing propaganda for the war. As a photographer, I was just making an observation about drunken Americans. I appropriated photos from eBay and carefully used Photoshop to add models that I photographed to the found images. I went through thousands of family photos and the one thing that kept coming up was alcohol, so I picked the ones where people were drinking.
PAUL LASTER: That’s a great use of Photoshop. How has Photoshop changed your way of picture making?
DAVID LACHAPELLE: That project wouldn’t have been possible without it, but a number of our series are purely analog. That’s why we film our shoots, like we did with the Gas Stations and Refineries, so that people can actually see how it’s made. The photos in the catalog show the sets being built and models being shot. You get to see that it’s not just an image created on a computer. I use Photoshop as a tool, but you have to have a great image to start. You can’t create something from nothing. I actually try to use it as little as possible.
PAUL LASTER: Another series that fooled me when I interviewed you for the New York Observer several years back is the Beatification series, which depicts Michael Jackson, or at least subjects that look like Michael Jackson, in allegorical poses. What was your motivation for that body of work?
DAVID LACHAPELLE: Michael being vilified…believing what you read…the contrasting ideas of reality, and what the press does to people. The press likes taking off on someone and watching their fall—their destruction and fall from grace. The tabloid addiction has become so brutal, especially now with the Internet. The photographs represent the real Michael. I think that he was one of the incredible people that come along once in a hundred years. It’s Biblical that he’s been martyred. It was a real modern-day witch-hunt, televised.
PAUL LASTER: What’s the back story on the photographs of Amanda Lepore as “My Own Marilyn” and “My Own Liz”? Did you make them for an assignment or just for yourself?
DAVID LACHAPELLE: I made them for myself. I just love those images by Warhol and I wanted ones that I could put in my house. I didn’t want a cheap reproduction, so I thought why not make my own?
PAUL LASTER: Another series that seems like straight photography, which is brilliantly presented, is the Crash series. Where did the idea originate and how did you come up with this successful, cutout means of showing the work?
DAVID LACHAPELLE: It was 2005 when I made them and I wanted to depict a crash. Living in LA, luxury automobiles—status symbols bumper to bumper—seemed like a good way to go. They’re not about death. Unlike Warhol’s crash pictures, these are about status and brands that are totaled, but no one died in them. It was about the impeding financial crash that was coming. They were on the wall at Tony Shafrazi Gallery when Lehman Brothers collapsed. No one got it at the time. When I showed them two years later in France everyone understood that that’s what they were about.
PAUL LASTER: Where did you shoot the cars, in junkyards? Were they straight photos?
DAVID LACHAPELLE: I went to auto body shops around Los Angeles. They were actual photos of crashed cars that I printed and then cut out, mounted on cardboard, and stacked. They’re very light and easy to ship.
PAUL LASTER: Your 2013 show at Paul Kasmin Gallery, where you exhibited the Still Life and Last Supper series, was equally impressive. I like how you photographed fragments of body parts in cardboard boxes. How did this project come about?
DAVID LACHAPELLE: I was in Ireland and heard about a wax museum that had been vandalized and immediately thought I wanted to photograph the pieces. I had already photographed a lot of the celebrities wax figures, which had been vandalized in the museum, in real life. I like the idea of facsimiles on one level, while on another level I felt they said a lot about the disposability of people in the star system.
PAUL LASTER: You obviously didn’t need a big crew to photograph these works. Did you just shoot them in the boxes where they were stored?
DAVID LACHAPELLE: Yeah, I photographed them in the museums in the boxes that the fragments were stored in. Then I found two other museums where figures had been taken apart and retired. The last two wax museums were in Hollywood and Las Vegas. I brought my own cardboard boxes so that there would be continuity.
PAUL LASTER: I loved your film Rize, and I saw on your website that you recently made a short film for Happy Socks. Do you have plans to make another feature film?
DAVID LACHAPELLE: We did the Happy Socks film in a day. They wanted a behind-the-scenes documentary, but we didn’t want to do it that way. We wanted to have some fun, but it was just silliness. Rize, however, was a documentary project that took three years to film. I funded it myself. We took it to Sundance and it went on to be shown theatrically in 17 countries, which is very unusual for a documentary. I was really pleased with it, but I don’t want to make more films. I like stills; I enjoy short form. When I go to see one of my gallery or museum shows, it’s like going to a movie—with different scenes. I see my filmmaker friends struggling with the business side of it. The golden age of Hollywood is over. The best work has moved over to television.
DAVID LACHAPELLE: I don’t want any hands controlling my puppet strings, financially or otherwise—creatively holding me down. As a photographer, I run my studio autonomously, like a film studio, and we just make whatever we want to make.
PAUL LASTER: Over the past seven or eight years you’ve been showing at museums around the world. How has that changed your life?
DAVID LACHAPELLE: It’s been exciting. It’s great to see the work that way—to see it all together on a large scale. I have them printed and mounted and framed exactly how I want. When you make art you want to share it with people. It’s gratifying to see people viewing the work—taking it in, not rushing through it. I sometimes enjoy watching people look at the work from afar. That for me is when the piece is finished, when you’re communicating something, touching somebody. You get to see a whole range of work—from the early gallery years when it was about AIDS to the ‘90s when we were having more fun. I realized that I wasn’t going to immediately die so the pictures became much lighter and the colors became more saturated. You see these different chapters but you also see the connections. Things have come full circle. Even when I was working for magazines I was exploring the paradox of the world that we inhabit—especially the paradox that I was living, which was a realm of over-consumption. While the world was facing major problems, we were just shopping for our 400th pair of shoes, as if that would bring us happiness. The magazines were pushing this idea. It was a weird place to be. Toward the end it was difficult for me to get things published because the ideas were getting stronger. Looking at the progression of the work I don’t see any stagnation. When I look at it all, I feel that by quitting and coming to Hawaii and starting over another chapter opened up.