120 Mag March, 2010

THE WAY I SEE

David LaChapelle, 40, is an American photographer and HSI-signed director whose advertising portfolio includes work for Boots, Maybach, Pepsi, Levi's, Philip Morris, Diesel Jeans and Motorola. His first professional shoots were for Andy Warhol's Interview magazine in New York when he was still a teenager in the 80s. Since then, LaChapelle has developed a distinctive style which blends fantasy, reportage and surrealism. He talked to Diana Goodman.

David LaChapelle: If I had to describe myself I would say I was fortunate and grateful.

Until I was 16, I lived in Farmington, Connecticut. It was woods, nature and being alone. I had a great mom and dad, a big brother who was a motocross star and saved my ass from bullies, and a big sister who was super cool and glamorous and kept me happy and laughing. She turned me on to good music and art. My first album, when I was really young, was Hair. I'd memorized all, the songs from it and I'd go around the house singing them. Once, I was in the back seat of the car going to visit my cousins and I was singing "Sodomy, fellatio, cunnilingus. .:" with no idea what the words meant. My mom said, "Maybe you shouldn't sing that particular song at you cousins' ".

My sister mothered me a lot, as did my grandma, Oma. So I had three women taking good care of me. I still see my sister quite often. She's done humanitarian work her whole life and right now she's working with housing for the homeless and human trafficking in Florida. She has a huge heart.

Her work is very different from mine, but there was one incident where she was working with a family and having a very tough time with them. Then, when they found out that I had made Rize [LaChapelle's 2006 documentary about street dancing in LA], it was a good thing for her. The kids really respected the film. My first memory is of my dad shaving before work and singing to me in the crib. Dad was a businessman; spiritual, very selfless, old school, part of "the greatest generation". Mom worked all kinds of jobs besides taking care of us really well, and kept a beautiful garden. She was a free thinker, a vegetarian and an artist. I was different when I was growing up. I didn't finish high school, I was dressing bizarrely and my friends were alternative, to say the least. But my parents were really understanding, especially given their backgrounds. My mother was a refugee from Lithuania who arrived on the last ship before Ellis Island closed and my dad had a very Catholic and conservative upbringing. He was the first kid in his family to go to college and I was the complete opposite, not a good student at all.

I discovered I was gay when I was about 15. At 14, I had a girlfriend, Hiroko, and my parents were absolutely fine with that. Then one morning I broke up with her and everyone was really upset. About a week later I said. "This is my boyfriend. Danny," and they hardly seemed to notice.

I grew up in a house where people never told off-colour jokes about gay people, or race or religion - never, ever. My parents didn't tolerate it and they hated people who made jokes like that. So in that sense I was sheltered. I remember going to North Carolina when I was 11 and hearing people say "nigger" for the first time. To me that was really shocking and ugly. I had never heard it in my whole life.

Mom was a keen photographer. She would set up scenarios and have us pose every weekend at really pretty places around Connecticut. One time she had us posing at a country club that we didn't belong to, with a sheep dog that wasn't ours and clothes we didn't normally wear. It was like something from The Sound of Music. When we lived in North Carolina, there was a fast food place called Long John Silver's with a fake boardwalk and pillars at the entrance. Mom posed us there and framed it so that you would think we were in Providence or Cape Cod. In fact, we were wearing boating clothing in a parking lot in a strip mall. She didn't have any social pretensions - not at all. It was just that growing up in poverty during the war and in refugee camps, she had this Hollywood idea about America that was very important to her and she wanted us to look like that. She just liked this very aspirational idea. I didn't really appreciate it until years later, but I guess that's where I got my original inspiration from. I moved to New York when I was 15, after I had to leave school because of harassment from other kids. These days I wear a simple white T-shirt and jeans, and as an adult I think, why didn't I just dress normally? But I absolutely didn't want to be like them and it seemed paramount that I express myself through what I wore. I would go to thrift stores and put crazy looks together, which wasn't done at public schools in Connecticut at the time.

My parents were a bit fearful, thinking I was going to be a bum, but they understood that college was not on the cards for me. When I first came to New York they made a deal: instead of tuition they would help out with my photography bills. My breakthrough came in 1984 when a friend turned her loft into 303 Gallery to show my photos and I sold three pictures. She's now a hugely successful gallerist.

Getting beaten up at school leaves a scar where you feel that the whole world is against you. You don't get over it, although you try to unlearn it, and still to this day if a stranger on the street gets in my face I immediately get incredibly defensive. When I was designing a show in Vegas for Elton John, I was walking through the lobby and some hillbilly called me a faggot. Immediately, everything came rushing back for me and there was a huge fight and everyone got arrested. It was a nightmare.

I met Andy Warhol at clubs in New York. He was very accessible. If you were out dancing or at parties you would see Andy. I talked to him and said I was a photographer and could I show him my pictures, and he said, "Sure." He gave me my first extended place to work as a photographer at Interview magazine. It was my schooling. I would define my work as narrative "pop" with social subplots.

As influences, I draw on all great artists, from Michelangelo to Michael Jackson. In a recent photograph I depicted Jackson as an angel because he was a modern-day martyr. An innocent artist persecuted in a televised, modern-day witch hunt. The first advertisement that made an impression on me was "Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh, what a relief it is:' [Alka-Seltzer]. I got into advertising because I was really trying to be independent and it was a step. Showing in galleries didn't pay my bills at the time. I don't feel that working on an advertising campaign compromises my art. On the contrary, it can be so invigorating and energizing for myself and my studio; a good ad job is exciting.

The Pepsi commercial we just did was a blast - the most fun job ever. We wanted it to look and feel like Rize and they gave us total freedom to do that. Also, the stills job I did with Maybach (Daimler) was incredible. They said, "Do what you want." and meant it. I have turned down a few things I felt were not for me: a really bad, dark, violent video game, for instance. People say that you shouldn't work on cigarette ads, but I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for tobacco. My parents met when they were field workers picking tobacco, three days after my mother arrived in the country. As a consumer, I enjoy good ads and billboards a lot. I think there should be a commercials channel. I really love the vintage stuff; there was also a lot of funny material. I don't think there's any stigma attached to working in advertising. To some old-school art snobs, maybe, but it's an antique notion that's obsolete.

I like creative boards and interesting people. You can tell on the conference call if it's going to be cool. In terms of the way that advertising has changed, I think that maybe these days there is too much reliance on digital that's not rendered well, and not enough organic in-camera work that's still fantastical. Fantasy doesn't always need to be digital. I love good music in an ad, too. Right now I listen to everything except death metal. I love Lady Gaga's new stuff. She's a friend - another total misfit at school - so watching her career skyrocket has been fantastic. She wrote Speechless at my house in Hawaii and every night she was banging away on the old piano while I just lay underneath it and listened. I bought a 24-acre farm in Maui because nature is where I find myself and get my feet on the ground. My cathedral is the forest. I love water. Solitude is infinitely important for me to keep myself in balance. The photographers I most admire are Francesca Woodman, Nan Goldin and Avedon.

I remember going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in seventh or eighth grade and when I looked at these giant Avedon blow-ups you could see the dull spots in the prints where they'd been retouched by hand. And when I moved to New York, my friend Eddie Mapplethorpe had a job retouching [his brother] Robert's prints. You had to scrape off the emulsion and dapple it back really lightly in the areas you wanted to retouch: lines, veins in the eyes, pimples ... So I don't have any qualms about using computer manipulation. Photography is always being manipulated. Even in news photography, you're saying something through what you crop out. For me, the purpose is to make a statement. I did The Rape of Africa (a 2009 large-scale artwork featuring Naomi Campbell) because I viewed Botticelli's Venus and Mars and found the mythology relevant for today. The rape of Europa never took place, it was a myth. Yet in the history of art there have been many references to this idea. I chose Africa because it's the cradle of life. It's Mother Earth. But there's been a tenfold increase in gold production in Africa, devastating the continent and its people more than ever before. Its cost in environment and human suffering is incalculable. So we're actively degrading Mother Earth - and inevitably killing ourselves in the delusional quest for "economic" security. The idea of gold being a safe commodity is a myth; there is no safe investment at all. It's all lies we tell ourselves. I plan for a work like this with lots of drawing and sketches.

It's true that Naomi Campbell has a reputation for being difficult, but she's not. She's incredible. She is walking glamour. I love working with her. She brings a lot of energy to shoots. All religions contain human truths but they get covered up, perverted and twisted by fundamentalists and dogma. I always find inspiration in religious teachings and the fact that the struggle between war and greed and love and beauty is still relevant today. In Roman times, people watched prisoners being mauled by lions, and later in Europe and the USA they went to town squares to watch public hangings. Things are not very different today. Torture porn movies are proof of that, as well as the fact that Daniel Pearl's beheading was one of the most downloaded clips on the internet. There's still this interest in blood and torture and death. In thousands of years we haven't really progressed at all.

What I want people to get out of my work is inspiration, connection, understanding. Have drink and drugs ever been a problem for me? Only when I've taken them. In terms of judging and being judged, I've heard the extremes of judgment, beyond love and hate. It's all fair, I guess. But I try to judge only what's coming out of my mouth and to reflect on my actions more than those of others. My daily goal is to be a better person and artist. Growing up, I was taught that being a really good human being is number one. Anything else, such as material success, is separate. I guess that's kept me grounded. Being an American means a great deal to my mom, as an immigrant, and to my dad, as a veteran. So they instilled in me a real sense of importance about what America stands for. I think the founding fathers were geniuses. In the Declaration of Independence, the pursuit of happiness is listed as one of our inalienable rights and it's the only governing doctrine in the world which contains that philosophy. I read a lot of Jefferson, Franklin and Adams and keep a copy of the Jefferson Bible by my bed. Most politicians today are hard to stomach. I think that many start out with good ideals, but gradually in a long political career those beliefs are often eroded, corroded and bartered away until only a puppet with egoistic ambitions remains. I am hopeful that Obama will be a good leader, but one man can only do so much; we all must make changes for the world to work. I get really angry about art programs being cut from schools. And art colleges and photo schools ripping students off. It's criminal. I have interns at the studio who are recent graduates and are $150,000 in debt. How do you start out in life as an artist or aspiring photographer with such debt?

The most shameful thing I've ever done is not showing respect to my mom and dad when I was a teenager and out of control. My most treasured possession is a book I've had since I was 15, entitled Your Needs Met [by Jack Ensign Addington, 1966]. And some William Blake watercolours that I've had since I was 21. I'm not afraid of dying. Just of not living to my potential. When I die, I want to be composted my garden in Maui. What I most despise is cruelty - and ignorance. I have had therapy: aromatherapy and a few other kinds. The things that give me the greatest pleasure are creating, lovemaking, swimming naked. Being in the woods. Music, dancing and acting nuts with close friends, laughing till it hurts. Making people happy. If I could relive my life, I would talk to my grandma more and record her to listen to now.

If I could change the world, I would give every child that was ever born good, loving parents. In the end, the most important thing is that the good we did outweighs the bad.

By Diana Goodman

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