David LaChapelle is one of a handful of photographers who need no introduction to anyone who has ever read a glossy magazine. His brash, ultra-vivid photographs have managed to remain startlingly original in the overtrod blitz-and-glitz worlds of fashion and celebrity. But one of the most distinctive aspects of his work has been his ingenuity at injecting pop culture with freewheeling doses of religion, art history, and myth. This flair for philosophical undercurrent has widened into the personal work that has found its way into blue-chip galleries, museums, and art books since he returned to the fine-art realm.
In person, LaChapelle appears as an amiable, roguishly handsome club-crawler. But the more he gamely answers any and all questions thrown at him, the more he emerges as a thoughtful and cultivated man with serious views about art, society, and the fate of the planet. His latest series, LAND SCAPE, is twofold: Refineries employs elaborate scale models, made of commonplace petroleum-based products like plastic straws and curlers, to depict a key step in the process of depleting fossil fuel resources. Gas Stations, which takes hints of Ed Ruscha’s iconic depots deep into the lush terrain of LaChapelle’s Maui life, places the ravaging of Earth squarely in our daily lives. Both series suggest his ambivalence: he captures a magical, gleaming beauty along with the subjects’ ominous implications.
LaChapelle isn’t new to fine-art photography; he first showed in 1984, at age 21, and did so until 1990 when he began working for Interview magazine in its heyday. “Interview was like my college, because I didn’t finish high school. It was my finishing school.” This led to becoming a hardworking darling of magazine art directors, until the day he quit all for-hire gigs. By 2006, LaChapelle had had enough of commercial work. After many years of shooting ads and celebrities, LaChapelle had outgrown his passion for it, and returned to making photographic art based on his own desultory inner dialogue. “I knew I could no longer go on photographing the new Britney Spears or whatever, and editors were having trouble with some of my more provocative work like ‘Jesus Is My Homeboy.’ I felt that my ideas were not fitting the magazines’ needs anymore, and they weren’t fitting mine. It was time to go.”
He also felt that the fashion world that had embraced his work, while interesting as an art form and instructive to an evolving artist, was ultimately promoting a rampant mindless consumerism that he was increasingly uncomfortable with. His work became acts of conscience, not commerce. But he looks back happily on the mass-media phase. “Definitely those years taught me how to communicate and about technique. I spent a lot of time in the darkroom, analog; first six years in black-and-white and then in color — the dark ages of my life, discotheques and darkrooms … clubs in New York City. You learn from everything, even from the society weddings I did as a kid.”
Since living off the grid on his farm in Maui (transformed from a former nudist colony), he began thinking about the environment, which became the seed of his current series. “I certainly didn’t want to be judgmental, point fingers or put myself on some kind of pedestal, because I’m a consumer. I just came off a plane to Paris that used tons of fuel.” LaChapelle is wrestling with the realization that the global economic system is rigged by greed but that we’re now all complicit in its consequences. “The Greeks were dealing with these questions, too. It’s not a new idea, but it’s reached different levels now because there are so many of us on the planet, over seven billion. The population has doubled since I was born.” The dense forestation that is slowly engulfing his gas stations presents a visual allegory of how LaChapelle sees the endgame, Nature having the last laugh.
David LaChapelle’s LAND SCAPE series is on view at Galerie Daniel Templon in Paris through December 23. And his exhibition at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo in Peru opens on January 22.
-by Michael Kurcfeld