These shining cathedrals of power are not what they seem. Modelled in miniature from plastic bottles, egg cartons and other waste material, they are the photographer David LaChapelle’s comment on our petroleum-reliant culture.
He was hailed by Richard Avedon as photography’s answer to René Magritte, and certainly David LaChapelle’s hyper-kitsch, neon-rinsed images reveal more than a touch of the surreal. His is a visionary and wholly artificial world, capable of seducing and confusing, often all at once.
LaChapelle, 51, secured his break in 1980 after patronage from Andy Warhol. He was handed a column in Warhol’s Interview magazine after the pair befriended each other at Studio 54. ‘London Calling’ involved a teenage LaChapelle, glad to escape New York after the death of his boyfriend, photographing the capital’s provocative creative scene and its stars. ‘Holy s***, what planet have I landed on?’ was how he later described the experience, but an initial two-week stay became a year-long career masterstroke as regular work for British Vogue, The Face and i-D followed.
Since then he has shot Kylie half-naked and riding a bicycle, Britney Spears selling hot dogs, Marilyn Manson as a lollipop lady, and one of the first public advertisements to show a gay couple kissing, for Diesel. He has built stage sets for Elton John and, in 1996, made an MTV commercial featuring elderly lookalikes of Madonna and Courtney Love in a pastiche of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
After 25 years of headline-grabbing images and a complementary party lifestyle, LaChapelle changed gear. In 2006 he moved to the Hawaiian island of Maui to live on an organic farm and retreat.
The tenor of his work shifted accordingly. After a photography series exploring salvation and redemption (which included underwater vicars, among other things), LaChapelle has spent the past two years building miniature versions of oil refineries and petrol stations in the Maui jungle for a book, Land Scape. It is a commentary on our petroleum-reliant consumer culture. ‘In my mind,’ he says, ‘I saw glowing temples in the Maui rainforest – small illuminated structures. All I had to do then was build and photograph them.’
Using a team of helpers he constructed dozens of models from tea canisters, hair curlers, drinking straws, egg cartons and other remnants of our disposable lifestyle. Corrugated cardboard and glitter play a large role, but polish is not the aim here. We are meant to see the crummy bits, which ‘represent the absurdity of our attempts to harness nature’.
The models may bear more than a passing resemblance to gaudy 1970s sci-fi movie sets, but LaChapelle’s images, with their impossible colours, luminous smoke and beautiful reflections, are enormously evocative. Without their owners or operators, and lights left blazing, the buildings seem recently abandoned and distinctly sad. Several of the petrol stations are directly inspired by an Edward Hopper painting, the patron saint, if ever there was one, of world-weary worry.
Land Scape by David LaChapelle (Damiani, £29) is available for £26 plus £1.95 p&p from Telegraph Books (0844-871 1515; books.telegraph.co.uk)