CNN June 10th, 2011

It’s never wise to confuse the character of an artist with that of his work, but sometimes you just can’t help it. So it’s a bit of a surprise that David Lachapelle’s personality doesn’t match that of his photos.

Anyone who has seen the work of the 47-year-old photographer might expect him to be as brash and sensational as the images he creates. Instead, he is remarkably humble and soft-spoken.

Lachapelle was in Hong Kong last month for ART HK 11, during which time he could be found hobnobbing at parties, participating in the Intelligence Squared debate on whether art should be beautiful (it should, he argued) and, not least of all, opening a new show at De Sarthe Fine Arts.

Several new works are on display at the gallery, including the impressive seven square meter collage “The Raft of Illusion, Raging Toward Truth II,” a contemporary remarking of Théodore Géricault’s celebrated 1819 painting “The Raft of the Medusa,” which depicted the ragged, wounded survivors of a sunken French ship.

“The Raft” is the product of a two-day photoshoot in Hawaii. “It became this epic event with people in really uncomfortable positions,” says Lachapelle. Afterward, he ripped up and combined the photos with cardboard, plastic bags and other scavenged materials. Another series in the show, “Studies and Sketches for Paradise Regained,” makes use of a similar technique.

Perhaps the most interesting work is “Bruce Lee,” which pays homage to the Chinese-American kung fu film star with a series of three hyper-saturated photographs. Though the photos appear to be digital collages, they were created almost entirely on set, using a variety of props and backdrops.

“I wanted to do some work specifically for China and inspired by it, kind of like China seen through Western eyes,” says Lachapelle, who has recently won a new generation of admirers in Asia. He considers Lee a particularly potent symbol, given the way he transcended cultural barriers to become an international star.

Lachapelle, who was born and raised in rural Connecticut, got his start in the feverish art scene of 1980s New York. After a rough few years -- he lost his boyfriend in the decade’s AIDS epidemic -- he was invited by Andy Warhol to shoot for Interview magazine.

Over the next 18 years, he became one of the world’s top celebrity photographers, with work that was intensely colourful and irreverent. In one photo, he branded the rapper Lil’ Kim’s naked body with Louis Vuitton logos; in another, he portrayed Michael Jackson as Jesus.

It was the kind of glamorous life that many would have milked for as long as possible. But in 2006, Lachapelle retired from commercial photography and moved to Maui, where he lives on an 18-acre farm that produces goat’s milk and 10 different types of chili peppers.

Make no mistake, though -- Lachapelle is not living the life of a hermit. His work for magazines has been supplanted by a lucrative new work for art galleries around the world, where his photos often fetch six-figure US prices. After all, he says, “If you have a voice, you don’t just want to sing in the shower.”

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