American Photo on Campus February 2000


Even before we outgrow disposable diapers, we're being encouraged to use our imaginations - advice that David LaChapelle has taken to heart. This 35-year-old photographic phenom, whose work appears in Interview, Rolling Stone, Spin, Detour, and Vanity Fair, uses his fertile imagination to make visually stunning fun of middle-class culture and its wasteful, wanton ways. And the actors in his bizarre dramas? Pop celebrities, from supermodels to rock stars to talk-show hosts. As this issue's special feature shows, LaChapelle's art is dazzlingly extroverted-but unlike a lot of the current editorial and advertising photography, it is always driven by ideas. Mentor Linda Connor's photographs are equally thoughtful but far more introspective. The subject of our mentor profile has been making subtle, deeply respectful images of sacred places-and teaching photography at San Francisco Art Institute-ever since studying with Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind in the 1960s. In photography, it takes all kinds.

By Russel Hart, Editor


Six-year-old David LaChapelle shot his first photograph in 1970, during a family vacation in Puerto Rico. Taken on a hotel balcony, it was a simple but elegant image of his mother-who also served as stylist and art director-in a homemade two-piece bathing suit. Back home, LaChapelle began creating family pictures that were much more than snapshots-each one carefully propped, styled, and composed. It was the start of the controlled, collaborative approach to photography that is a hallmark of LaChapelle's mature work.

Now 35, LaChapelle has become one of the most imaginative, successful commercial photographers in the world, shooting for magazines such as Interview, Rolling Stone, Spin, Detour, French Vogue, and Vanity Fair. Indeed, in his use of vivid color, provocative content, and digital manipulation, he became perhaps the prime iconographer of 1990s America-a land saturated by images and steeped in its own tabloid culture. We spoke with him on the occasion of the publication of his new monograph, Hotel LaChapelle (Bulfinch Press/Callaway). He gave the book that name because its pictures were "conceived in hotels," where he lives for long periods because so much of his work is shot on location. But the title is apt in another way. When celebrities consent to being photographed by LaChapelle for a magazine story or advertise¬ment, they're checking in for a very unusual stay.

What did you want to be when you grew UP?

An artist. I wasn't a real popular kid, so I spent a lot of time drawing and painting. My mother was really creative, so I was never discouraged from anything artistic. She was like an art director. When I started doing photography, every session was a drama. Later, I took a photography class at the performing arts high school I was attending. You can see what's happening on the first roll of film I developed. I left the photography studio and on the way back to my dorm I photographed some steps-the typical light-and-shadow abstraction. I shot three or four of those. But by the 19th frame I had all my 14-year-old friends posing naked in my dorm room. I discovered that people will do anything for the camera.

Why Is that?

Being in a photograph is a performance. For an actor or a rock star, it's just an extension of entertaining. The really smart entertainers know how important it is to get still images out there. Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, even the reclusive Marlon Brando knew the importance of leaving the world with stills of themselves. Some young actors today don't get it; they think it's not cool to be photographed. But it is. The photograph is tangible, a frozen moment of time.

How did you break into professional photography?

I came to New York in 1982, right after school, and met Andy Warhol. He said I should be a model. I told him I was a photographer, and he asked to see my pictures. "These are great," he said. I thought, "Oh my God, Andy Warhol thinks my pictures are great." Warhol was my favorite artist since I was a kid. I remember seeing his Gold Marilyn in a museum on a fourth-grade field trip and thinking it was the most sexy, dirty, glamorous painting I had ever seen. What I didn't realize was that Andy thought everything was great. He thought it was really difficult to bake a cake, so if you baked a cake, it was great. "Wow, you baked a cake! That's great!" He Iiked everything.
But he wouldn't hire just anybody to work for his magazine, Interview.
He didn't hire me right off the bat. It took another year and a gallery show. People from Interview came to the show, and from that I got work at the magazine. I did the last formal portrait of Andy, about two weeks before he died. Andy's work and philosophy at the magazine really influenced me. He wanted to make everyone look good. Beautiful and sexy and young was real important. I've taken that lesson to heart. In my photos, I try to make everybody look good.

How do you create such vivid colors? Do you ever cross-process your film?

That's too gimmicky for me. I don't want the colors to be saturated beyond the point of believability. I shoot color negative film and have a printer who works only for me. I spent years in the darkroom printing in black and white, then taught myself to color print. That made me realize that I liked the hyper-real quality of saturated color.

My pictures are escapist. The world can be traumatic and dark and ugly; I know, because when I was 18 or 19 I lost a lot of very close friends to drug use and AIDS. There are photographers who represent that in their photos, and I respect a lot of their work. But for me, pictures are fantasies. At the same time, they're a document of our era. I think the best photographs have that dual purpose. I don't think something has to be ugly to be valuable. There's this idea that good photography has to be cold, gritty, political. But I believe you can make the picture ambiguous enough to be beautiful and entertaining yet also make a statement.
Your photographs of bodybuilders are a good example of that.

I was in Cape Canaveral for a Details story on steroid abuse by bodybuilders. Bodybuilding was such a big thing at the time that even high school athletes were on steroids. We're not meant to be that size. The rockets and the kids represent the future of America, all red, white, and blue. The pictures were about the strange idea of making yourself into these gigantic beings.

You grew up in the age of television. Has that medium affected your work?

Movies have influenced me more than TV. But my work is affected by everything I'm exposed to. People say, "Where is your personal work?" This is my personal work. I'm not interested in doing photographs just for galleries. I'm really interested in photographing today's culture and its heroes - the Leonardo DiCaprios, the Drew Barry¬mores, even the Pamela Lees. They are the subject of my personal work. Too many photographers make a big distinction between their personal and commercial work. Maybe it's because "commercial photographer" sounds hideous, like you're photographing a bottle of Ajax. But like any good photography, it's about realizing a concept and presenting something in a way that hasn't been seen before.

What's the concept behind your image of Faye Dunaway, done for Vanity Fair?

It's about celebrity hysteria, a form of religious ecstasy. The worship of celebrities as deities. Here, the crowd has gone from worshiping to crucifying. It's an epic. I think of my pictures as movie stills, and that may be why a lot of actors are comfortable with me. There's a story being told.

Do you storyboard your pictures?

I draw pictures of everything, especially with big productions like the Faye Dunaway shot. But even with all the extras and producers and grips and stylists and caterers and Winnebagos and drivers and agents and P.R. people, I never feel locked into the drawing. I still keep the shoot spontaneous. I'm the first person to tell my assistants to put the lights away and say we're just going to use daylight. I like the chaos of lots of people around me when I'm shooting. It creates energy and keeps things from getting too precious.

You've quoted Truman Capote: "Good taste is the death of art." How so?

There's an obsession with the idea of good taste. Good taste is just something people use to distance them¬selves from things they consider middle class. But today's good taste is tomorrow's Pottery Barn is the next day's bargain basement. Anybody can paint their walls white and have wood floors and put a beeswax candle in the corner and say they have good taste. I hate the idea of good taste in photography and art. Nothing is more banal.

What other photographers do you respect?

I respect originals. They don't grow on trees, but every era has them: Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin, Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin, Larry Clark, Joel-Peter Witkin, Deborah Turbeville. These are originals. They're people who have new ways of seeing. They didn't copy anyone. I feel very fortunate to be doing something I love with my life, because there are so many people in the world who are struggling to make a living. It took me a long time to get up the confidence to take pictures just for myself. But by doing that, and keeping a pure vision, I think I ultimately reach more people.

By Mark Eduard Harris

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