OFF-THE-PLANET and in your face, his playful, incisive celebrity portraiture is the razzle-dazzle alternative to the black and white grunge brigade.
Laughingly describing his work as "fresh, exhilarating and zesty", LaChapelle's takes on the hip-things of celebritydom offer more than just PR retreads. He dishes up sumptuous surreal mosaics of colour and detail that retract facets of personality not usually illuminated by the spotlight.
A happy product of the polyester-plus '70s "when people were into glamour and sex and women wore lots of makeup". LaChapelle made the break from New England's farmland to New York's fast lane at the age of 19- taking photographs for Interview and making cocktails at Warhol's other haunt ,Studio 54. These days the 33 year old is a regular, but never conventional, contributor to such glam-cash mags as The Face, Details and Vanity Fair. Shrieking sex and humor, his best view of the world is also seen in his advertising work for clients such as Diesel and Volvo. In November his first book of photographs, LaChapelle Land, will be released: "It's like a greatest hits collection, it's all way out there and a little too much - starting with the title".
Black+White spoke to LaChapelle about his clients, his career and the hiccups along the way.
Black+White: some people always wanted to be photographers, while others fell into it. Which was it for you?
David LaChapelle: As a kid I was dead-set on becoming a painter or an illustrator. Then I went to an art high school in North Carolina and that's when I first started taking pictures. My first roll of film was of my friends completely naked in my dorm room! And I knew that was it, I was completely sold and I can't remember ever finishing a drawing after that.
B+W: When did it become something that was self-supporting?
DL : I came to New York at the age of 18 and took my pictures of all my naked high school friends around to magazines. They all just looked at me like "Oh, my God! What is this kid about?" (Laughs) The only magazine that responded favorably was Interview and I kept going back there until they published some of my photos about a year later. There were a good six years of living hand-to-mouth and not making any money but when people started paying me it was a revelation.
B+W: How do you approach a portrait shoot?
DL : What's fun is starting with the person in front of you. When I shoot rock stars and actors I like to play with what they're about. You know, make them look beautiful but also make some sort of comment en who they are and what their image their person, is, I think it's fun to play with ideas of celebrity, artifice and hype, it's not a matter of doing something "wacky" just for the sake of being wacky.
B+W: You seem to really enjoy recasting major icons.
DL : I'm playing with them as much as they'll allow it to happen. When you work with big stars there's a protocol involved. It's getting really hard these days because there are so many publicists making money off these people and trying to "protect" them from anyone that'll be controversial. You have to constantly reassure those people that what they are doing is actually a positive thing cause ultimately if a photograph gets talked about then you've done your job.
B+W: What's your take on modern portraiture?
DL : A lot of photographers these days are lazy, they don't want to come up with new ideas and put the work in. They put people in a nice Armani suit and use nice lighting and shoot them the way they shoot everybody else that comes into their studio. It's like they're cataloguing them! I'm more interested in creating this fantasy, this memorable photograph that with hopefully stay around a while of maybe even wind up on some one's refrigerator - that's the ultimate compliment.
B+W: Do you have to do a lot of convincing to get celebrities to engage with your vision?
DL: It's total manipulation! I don't really like to tell them what I'm going to do beforehand because that just gives them a week to decide not to do it! I'm not trying to trick anybody, or do anything ugly. I just want to come into the studio and see that we just want to take good photographs.
I know I'm not a lot of publicists' favorite photographer. They'd rather go with someone much more safe like Herb Ritts or Greg Gorman. So I am swimming upstream a little bit when it comes to Hollywood portraiture because I'm always trying to do things that make me laugh or get excited and some people don't want that.
B+W: Your sense of humor really comes through in your work. The Drew Barrymore shoot was obviously a lot of fun.
DL : Oh yeah, You get an incredible energy from someone like Drew, this girl who's totally confident and at the peak other beauty. That was one of our best sessions, we just shot and shot all day and had a blast - we all fell in love with her (sighs) and then she left!
B+W: How did David Bowie shoot come about?
DL : I was a fan of David Bowie's up until the day I shot him! (Laughs) When I was an outcast and a freak at school, It was like "Oh my God, David Bowie! There's someone else in the world who's a freak as well!" That picture is just about his old persona. Now he has a very different interpretation of himself, he's very intellectual, he wears Armani. His publicist was like, having a cow but it all worked out.
B+W: You've piqued my interest by calling yourself a freak...
DL : One of the most formative times in a person's life is high school and if you don't fit in and you're an outcast then, it really stays with you for the rest of your life. Whatever category you were pushed into - the brains, the nerds, the fags- you were still considered a freak. I knew back then that better things were on my horizon and that's the only thing I could cling to. For me that place was New York.
B+W: Your photographs are like mosaics, very layered and with lots of details. Do you use computer a lot?
DL: I don't use them as much as people think. I might have been a freak at school but I was not a computer nerd!
B+W: From your work it seems as if you must see the world in incredibly bright colours.
DL: When I started doing this really hyper-intensive colour stuff there weren't a lot of people using colour. It was during the whole grunge thing and there were a lot of black and white pictures of young beautiful models in squalid rooms wearing really expensive clothes but looking like they were going to kill themselves. I'm much more into fantasy than reportage so I wanted everything to be hyper fabulous and gorgeous and beautiful. That's why we started getting noticed because we went against that banal, black and white, low energy fashion.
B+W : Who influences you?
DL: Some of my favorite photographers are probably ones you wouldn't expect like Mario Sorrenti and David Sims. I love Diane Arbus. I think she's incredible, and Pierre et Gilles. (But) I'm really influenced so much by photographers as by my life. Like moving from New England to North Carolina from rural country to strip malled, fast food culture - was a real shock. And then coming to New York and working at Studio 54 as a bus boy, I mean that really influenced me. It's not like I suddenly saw Avedon's work and thought "I must be a photographer!" I love Sebastian Salgado's work too but I can respect those people without having to be like them.
B+W : Are you part of the celebrity scene you photograph?
DL : Oh hell no! A lot of these people are so high maintenance. They're basically their own corporation ad it's all about them and their needs and that's boring. After meeting these people you really pick up on how unhappy they are, how they're not really having as much fun as you and your friends .You stop and think: "Gosh, my friends are so much cooler than David Bowie!"And that's good because you always think the grass is greener in the celebrity world and it's not.
B+W : But you're something of a celebrity yourself these days. How does that sit with you?
DL: When I came to New York I made a splash. I was 19 years old, attractive and working for this magazine and I was getting all those invitations to go to parties and dinners. A couple of years after that I went through some personal crises and I stopped working for two years, and suddenly everything dried up and I had to start again from zero. I really saw how fickle people are and how fickle the business is, so now I don't think "Wow! I've really made it! I'm up there with Herb Ritts!" because I just don't believe in it. You don't do it for the fame or for the money because those things can, and do, disappear.
B+W: So those days, what reaction are you hoping to inspire in your readers?
DL: You know, we've all gone through a lot of growing up in the last 10 years. It's been a rough time and there's been a lot of shit, especially in the cities where we've known people with different kinds of lifestyles and we've lost a lot of them to Aids. What I like to do with my photos is take a break from that and escape into a fantasy that makes people laugh and chuckle or that's just beautiful in terms of color and light. I think those kinds of things are really important.
Text By Athena Thompson