Whether they are über celebrities or imposing oil refineries, fine art photographer David LaChapelle treats his subjects with iconic reverence as he skillfully orchestrates images of astonishing clarity, colorful vitality, and lyric expression. The message is decisive and bold yet it conveys the soft reveries of friendships lost through untimely deaths and once beautiful landscapes that have been debased by America's lust for power and industry.
In his work from the 1980s, LaChapelle, a Manhattan resident at the time, delved into themes of religion, sex, death, politics, money and consumption. Since moving to Hawaii in the late 1990s, LaChapelle — living on an organic farm that was formerly a nudist colony on the coast of Maui — has changed his focus to concentrate on the raping of our beautiful landscapes by private interests. The subjects have changed but LaChapelle's reverence for them, whether human or manmade, remain strong, compelling, and evocative. Whether figurescape or landscape — his intentions remain similarly focused.
The title of LaChapelle's current exhibition at the Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York City is "Refineries and Gas Stations," on view from January 17, 2014 - March 1, 2014. Noteworthy is the consistent size of the chromogenic prints — each at a monumental size of 50" x 70"— which intensifies the staggeringly impressive scenes that he creates. This has been his chosen size since the late 1980s.
Portraiture was LaChapelle's bread and butter during his early years in Manhattan. His images are notably color-saturated, glossy, and even then, larger than life. LaChapelle's preferred process in the 1980s was cibachrome — a positive print process known for its sharpness and rich color saturation. Cibachromes are made from transparencies. For LaChapelle, this process allowed for extremely high-gloss images that take advantage of a silver dye-bleach process that already exists chemically in the paper. Now, LaChapelle makes color prints from a color transparency that involves dyes and emulsion layers of silver salts to create luminous, large-scale prints. He was able to work between the two worlds of commercial art and high art —while his portrait images graced the covers of Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ and Rolling Stone, he would simultaneously have an exhibition in a gallery.
Over his thirty-plus year career, LaChapelle has become a master of the staged photographic set. Using recycled materials, including egg canons, tea canisters, and hair curlers among other recycled materials, he makes scale models that he then photographs, creating complex orchestrated scenes that he captures through the camera lens. The finished products become mélanges of light, color, and sparkle creating highly charged dramatic scenes. It is a daringly told story of the explosiveness of Manhattan and the East Village during the eighties morphing into the excessive entrepreneurial tastes of the oil magnates today.
David LaChapelle, a native of Fairfield, Connecticut, charged onto the art scene as a photographer for the legendary Interview Magazine in the 1980s having caught the eye of its founder, Pop artist Andy Warhol. LaChapelle and Warhol shared a taste for the fashion and celebrity scenes, not as commentators or voyeurs but as bold collaborators in the surreal world of the New York art scene during the in your face climate of the eighties. LaChapelle's figurescapes of icons such as Michael Jackson with white feathery wings attached to his back as he stands on a menacing red devil sadly portends his future. This hero worship as subject changes into views of landscapes, evidencing through the medium of photography, a sensual, hedonistic view of both human beings and our ravaged landscapes. In addition to Michael Jackson, Courtney Love has collaborated with LaChapelle and remains a good friend as seen in their joint exhibition at the Lyman Allen Art Museum in 2013 titled Mentoring Courtney Love: David LaChapelle and Courtney Love.
It was not uncertainty or ambivalence that kept LaChapelle in both worlds. LaChapelle was one of the highest paid commercial photographers, earning millions of dollars for his advertisements and magazine shoots. It was his commentary on the East Village of the 80s, alongside Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Edie Sedgwick, and Robert Mapplethorpe, among others. Last year, Fran Lebowitz stated at a talk in Fairfield, Connecticut, “The brilliant ones died too early. They were the ones who were having the most sex." LaChapelle is still around to provide his own perspective of this era.
Writing about LaChapelle’s 1988 exhibition, Your Needs Met, Cookie Mueller wrote in Art and About, "[the exhibition] was announced in the mail by a large card with the image of a child-man wearing a piece of fluff and framed in roses … The work was stylized mythic-religious-poetic: lots of hunks with angel wings in supplicant poses, innocent children and sweet madonnas attempting transcendentalism." LaChapelle’s wings were so ubiquitous in his images that they were considered part of his trademark.
One piece in particular from this time paid homage to those afflicted with the AIDS virus, titled Angels, Saints and Martyrs, with a monochromatic depiction of naked bodies surrounded by orbs or beams of light defining the shadows, contours, and surface patterns of his nudes. The idea was perhaps to depict his impression of the afterlife as experienced by his less fortunate fellow artists. The work was part of an exhibition titled David LaChapelle: Early Works from 1984 to 1987 that was shown at Michelman Fine Art in cooperation with Fred Torres Collaborations. This was a combined effort in 2011 with Fred Torres, Rebecca Michelman, Patrick Toolan, and David LaChapelle. These pieces set the tone for LaChapelle’s later work in that they combined his theatrical fantasy sets.
In 2006, LaChapelle decided to minimize his participation in commercial photography, and return to his roots by focusing on fine art photography. Since then, he has been the subject of exhibitions in both commercial galleries and leading public institutions around the world. He continues to be represented by Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York City. Paul Kasmin commented on his relationship with David LaChapelle, "The gallery has worked with David LaChapelle for several years. I first featured his work in an exhibition in 2009 and have now presented four shows with him. I am continually excited by his photographs and look forward to putting together many more exhibitions with him."