When it comes to photography, David LaChapelle is a cannibal, but he's consuming his own body of work. "I'd rather rip myself off before somebody else does," insists the 35-year-old shutterbug from the safety of his East 13th Street studio. The sparsely furnished front room of his second-story work space is dotted with elements from his images: glowing neon cherries and lightning bolts affixed to a white brick wall; a fashionable S&M-looking mannequin on all fours; a porcelain lawn leopard from a recent Elton John cover story for Interview magazine. LaChapelle's trademark – fugue-state assemblage of props and personalities executed in Candyland techno-color-has helped to define and redefine the look of magazines like Interview (where he got his start in the early '80s). Paris Vogue, Detour, Details, and The Face.
LaChapelle – along with fashion photogs Albert Watson, Herb Ritts, and Stephane Sedanoui – is now branching outside the confines of print, trading in his Pentax medium format for a movie camera. "I always see my photos as film stills, anyhow," explains LaChapelle, who's already completed a short promo for Armani featuring Jennifer Tilly, and the Dandy Warhols' video for "not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth". I cram so many details into the pictures that they're just begging to tell a story."
The phallic half-peeled bananas and maraschino cherries that surrounded Elton John as he taxied down the top of a leopard-spotted baby grand in an Interview spread were recycled for a Space Monkeys music video that LaChapelle directed a few months ago. "It was the same idea, yeah. But different mediums. I wanted to see the backdrop in film because it really fit with the 'Sugar Cane' song.
"It's better than having other people rip you off," he says of the backdrop's cameo. "That's the problem. At least in music they have laws so if you sample a song you have to credit the musician and pay them royalties. [The system] with photography., it really makes me fucking angry." His argument makes more sense, however, when an incident of someone "sampling" his work is detailed.
In May 1997, Vanity Fair ran a profile of Arnold Schwarzenegger. The accompanying pictures were taken by renowned lns-lizardess Annie Lebowitz; Arnie changing a tire on his muy macho Humvee, Arnie skiing at the zenith of a snow-capped peak, and (last but not least) Arnie hitting on of his famous Mr. Universe poses surrounded by scrawny little boys doing the same. This last picture disturbed LaChapelle since he'd done a near-identical photo set-up in 1993 for Details at Cape Canaveral with a bodybuilder and a bunch of grade-schoolers in red trunks. And then there's that portrait of Coolio taken inside a multi-colored padded cell in 1995. Puff Daddy's 1997 video for the single "I'm Coming Out" bears an uncanny resemblance to the LaChapelle image, David's aware that this kind of lifting happens to everyone worth their weight in Kodak Gold.
"It really fucking dilutes those people's work," he offers regarding the forerunners who are poached upon. "Every fucking scene from [Trent Reznor's "Closer"] video was a Joel Peter Witkin photograph. [They] make that into a fucking music video and everyone's like, "Yeah [clapping], yeah, good, good job!" You know what happens to Joel-Peter Witkin? This is his fucking life. You're taking his work now and people are thinking. 'Oh, this looks like Nine Inch Nails.' You know, have some fucking integrity. It's bullshit."
LaChapelle's reached a place where he can afford to rock the boat of the entertainment industry lemmings. Yet, at the same time, David genuinely remembers the long, hard road from his first quasi-glamour gig as a Studio 54 busboy to a do-no-wrong publishing darling. In 1978, a fifteen-year-old LaChapelle had pulled chocks à la Keith Haring, packed his shit, and left his family digs in a North Carolina apartment complex to make a break for the Big City. By his own admission, he was a pot-smoking disaster, day-dreaming about supporting himself as a painter or illustrator. After a stint living in the YMCA, doing the couchsurfing rounds in the East Village, and a failed attempt to land a job at Fiorucci; David finally would up sharing an apartment with a friend in Jersey while emptying the ashtrays of the rich and fabulous at the world's premiere discotheque.
David LaChapelle: The fun stopped for me when I started working there, of course. Because you're like, "What, I can't run around, take off my shirt, and dance?" I was really too young, anyhow. I was taking a year off from school when I went for the job – they called them auditions.
Bill Powers: They had you take off your shirt to apply for the job. Is that right?
Yeah, you took off your shirt, then they took a Polaroid of you . . . They called me and I started right away. I remember my last day there. I threw a tray of drinks at the manager.
Did it seem like the place to be at the time?
There was really good music, but it was funny because all my friends were going to the Mudd Club and CBGB's. My friend Vanessa was working at CB's as a waitress and she just thought Studio 54 was so hideous and so uptown and really disgusting. That's why I didn't stuff cocaine up my nose like [the patrons] were doing. I was not going to burn out as a busboy. It seemed much more glamorous to [maybe] burn out as a photographer. Like [in a few accent], "Fashion photographer found in Antigua – jonesing – naked in the bushes – missing his teeth" or something . . . You know, it's more exciting.
That's the Margot Kidder story I think . . .
Yeah, like Margot Kidder/David LaChapelle . . . I had the foresight to know that I could burn out in the future somewhere and be more glamorous.
What about 54? Being an alumni, are you curious about the movie they're making with Mike Myers? Have you been approached for it?
I have no interest in that. It was 20 years ago. I find it really boring . . . Who cares about Bianca Jagger? Tell me about, like, Fiona Apple. It's so easy to crystallize the past. Let's deal wth the present. I'm so sick of nostalgia. What's happening right now?
I saw a picture of Bianca from 54 on this white horse being led around by some naked go-go boy, and then I saw a picture you did of Leonardo DiCaprio on Hollywood Boulevard, also with a white horse. Was there any inspiration from those days?
I think you're definitely a product of what you grew up with. I totally think that time inspired me. But I don't want to see a movie about it or read about it. It's just really tedious. I mean, like, who snorted coke with Liza? Who fucking cares? Look what happened to her. Look what happened to all of them. Very few people got out of that phase.
As a photographer, you've really blown up in the '90s. Right now you have David LaChapelle images on the cover of Spin, Interview, and Detour simultaneously. Do you think it's tough once you get recognized for having a certain aesthetic because you're conditioned in a Pavlovian sense, where people come to expect a specific look?
Yeah. And then it's just up to you to keep changing what you do. That's up to the individual. You know, if someone hires me to do Marilyn Manson, they want my take on it.
You mean for a photo shoot?
Yeah, from my point of view. They don't want to see black-and-white from me, even though I studies six years just doing black-and-white [while I was] teaching myself to print, but when people hire me for stuff [today] they just want to see color. They want over-the-top.
Like I heard about a job you had to photograph Michael Jordan which didn't pan out because you'd brought a crystal basketball to the shoot, which he refused to use. Tell me about the meltdown.
Well, it wasn't Michael Jordan. It was the Michael Jordan machine. He was pushing his perfume. It was really distasteful and gross. But NBA stars are like the one group who are so spoiled that they don't really connect on a visual level. When I thought about the Michael Jordan thing – and they told me they didn't want any reference to be made with basketball – I thought that was really absurd. He's got fans. And there are people that love basketball who don't just want to buy his products, his sneakers, and his burgers and his tacos, and everything else that he's pushing.
That must have been pretty uncomfortable.
I just said to Michael Jordan, man to man, "Do they always tell you what to do?" Because he just sat there like a puppet. And he just got really put off by that. That I wouild actually talk to him on a human level. You may think you're a demagogue, but you know what? We're just people. And here we are in this room, and we can either take a really cool picture or not.
Are you ever concerned about doing a picture that's inappropriate? For instance, the photo of Tupac Shakur you took picking cotton. Were you worried about it being too racially loaded?
Again, this was collaboration with Tupac. I don't just take photos for shock value. Tupac always wore this do-rag, and it reminded me of old pictures I had seen of guys working the fields. And then I started thinking about plantations, where slaves would call out things to pass the time. People will sing out a rhyme to be answered back by another rhyme. This sort of "game" became a creative outlet, and if where rap music originated from. I've always been interested in the idea of time travel in my photographs, so I decided that this would be a trip to the past and I would portray him as a slave.
What about the civilians out there who criticize our work, saying its too prop-driven, it's not about photography but just the art direction?
I can't think about that. I just gotta keep doing what I'm doing. I can't worry about what other people think. And when I'm at a book signing [for LaChapelle Land] and I see all these kids with green hair from the art school, and the teacher says, like, "Whoa, they've never stayed this long for any photographer." Then I know something's up.
And who would you cite as your influences? I saw a book by the French photo duo Pierre & Gilles which had a similar texture to some of your stuff. Were you familiar with their images?
Not when I first started off. I became aware of them after I had a couple of shows in New York. Actually, I met them at a party in Paris. I was with my boyfriend at the time. Freddy, and they came up and asked if they could photograph him. I really love what they do. It's very specialized. Sometimes I consciously avoid looking like them in my work.
Would you say that Jean-Paul Goude is an influence for you?
As far as photographers to: I love jean-Paul Goude, I love Diane Arbus, I love Mondino, I love Pierre & Gilles. I don't know how much of it I just love. In terms of inspiration, I think I get a lot of it from film. Fellini has been a real big influence just because the world is open to any possibility, whether it's surreal or reportage. He could do anything.
What is your interpretation of fake or artificial?
Really easy. It's parading realism. Like when you open up a magazine and see a model wearing an $800 Prada sweater and Miu Miu shoes prowling around some dirty apartment that's not hers, with greasy hair that was made to look greasy by a high-paid hairdresser who was booked from an agency. That's fake and that's bullshit and that's corny. And that's more fake and more propped and more set and more of a fucking lie than anything I do because I'm doing fantasy, and it's an honest fantasy.
Nice. A lot of Pierre & Gilles's work is really homoerotic. Would you say that you're aware of your sexuality in images you put out?
I'm aware of my sexuality 24/7 baby. Ain't no time that I'm not thinking about getting some booty. Ain't no time.
Because you kind of have an affinity for, like, rockets and stuff, no?
I'd much rather have a penis than a rocket, but you can't get that porno so a rocket will have to do.
Text By Bill Powers