We bring you an extended version of the interview with the iconic photographer turned artist in last month's issue of Dazed
David LaChapelle first made a name for himself as a photographer for Warhol’s legendary Interview Magazine. Over the next 20 years, his boldly glamorous, often surreal fashion, celebrity and commercial work – including portraiture for everyone from Britney Spears to Alexander McQueen and Kurt Cobain – graced the pages of the world’s most respected magazines. LaChapelle expanded his vision to include award-winning music video work, and in 2004, he designed and directed Elton John’s Vegas show, The Red Piano. Simultaneously, he self-financed the Sundance award-winning short Krumped, which later inspired the 2005 feature-length documentary, Rize, celebrating South Central LA’s groundbreaking Krumping dancers.
In 2006, LaChapelle made a dramatic break from the fashion and celebrity scenes, moving to Maui where he renovated a former nudist colony compound, turning it into his private sanctuary. Here he has pursued his fine art work, despite doubts that that arena would accept someone with his background. Now, drawing on a broad base that ranges from art history to street culture, LaChapelle’s new work is turning many a stiff-necked critic’s head, focusing the lens of celebrity and fashion on consumerism and cultural hierarchies.
Dazed & Confused: What prompted your move away from fashion photography?
David LaChapelle: It happened quickly. In a year, I had gone from being really in love with everything I was doing to starting to question everything I was doing. After finishing Rize, all these things came to completion. Artists And Prostitutes came out, which was the Taschen anthology of everything I’ve ever done, and, at the same time, the third edition of the trilogy – LaChapelle, Heaven To Hell. There was this real ending.
And I thought, I’ve got nothing left to say in the arena of fashion. As I got older, my themes became more difficult for magazines to digest, and it just seemed like the time to quit… I was confronted with the idea that my themes were not palatable for fashion magazines any longer. I was hitting a wall. I was working just to pay for Rize. I remember my assistant looking at me one day and saying, ‘You’ve worked 11 months without a day off!’ I was totally a workaholic and using stimulants and stuff like that to get things done – it just wasn’t healthy. It started as stimulants to get things done, and then it became just to get out of it, which was really unhealthy. At one point, when Heath Ledger died, I was like, ‘That could’ve been me…’
Honestly, I never fucked up a job…there’s never anything I look at and say I missed a deadline or fucked something up. I didn’t. I can say honestly – and that’s why I called the book Artists and Prostitutes – I did some of the cheesiest fucking advertising you could ever possibly do, stuff that Annie Liebovitz would turn her nose up at – but, you know, she’s $25 million dollars in debt, or $40 million, or whatever the fuck it is, and I’m not. You know what I’m saying? And I didn’t fucking finish high school, I did it by myself. I never slept with anyone to get a job, regardless of what anyone says, but you know, I did shit advertising. And I did some great advertising – but I did it all to finance my work…
DD: There must have been a huge sense of freedom in walking away then...
DLC: I left magazines at the height of the economy in America. Money was coming in like crazy. I was working for the right magazines and doing the right videos. I really left thinking, ‘Okay, I’m just done.’ I just knew that world wasn’t for me any more…
It’s funny now, because after having been like, ‘I quit, I’m never doing an ad job again, I’m never working for magazines again,’ I softened the rule. I don’t want rules in my life anymore. Every once in awhile, I’ll do a campaign… But it’s on my own terms. It’s such an incredible place to be. I feel so grateful. And I always try to help younger artists and friends who are struggling with their work – provide them a place to stay, or buying their work, or whatever I can do, just to help who I believe in.
DD: Do you think that desire to give back comes from the fact that you were supported as a younger artist? From the people who opened doors for you along the way, such as Andy Warhol?
DLC:Honestly, I never felt that I was taken care of. The only person who I felt I was taken care of by was my dad, my mom. But Interview was not really a mentorship – so many [people] really make it more than it was.
Let me explain. I wasn’t Andy’s assistant. I wasn’t his right hand. I wasn’t his best friend. I worked at Interview – at the magazine. Paige Powell was Andy’s wife, for lack of a better word. She was like the Warhol widow when he died. She took me under her wing, and Mark Ballet, who was the art director. I would go out with all of them together.
I had one time when I was out with Andy alone, and that was when we went to go see a Prince concert. He knew I loved Prince, so he arranged for me to come with them. But the others were really late, so we sat in this little bar, across from Madison Square Garden, and that was the only alone time I ever had with him. And we just talked, and he was telling me how glamorous these other people were – in Palm Beach. And I was like, ‘Are you kidding?’ I was a kid, and I was like, ‘You’re more glamorous than any of those people!’ And he just smiled.
Although he was very generous and kind to me, I was in no way like his relationship with Jean Michel Basquiat or Keith Haring or people like that. I was really close to people who were close to him. I was invited to the dinners and things, but not like a regular thing. I was there for four years. And I did the last portrait of him before he died, which was very strange… I can only imagine.
He wasn’t really what people think – now. He really suffered. But he liked humor, and was generous and kind. But you have to remember, people thought he was washed-up. If I learned anything being there at that time, it was that New York City was not nice to him. Not the people – but the critics, the collectors, the academics, people were like – echh. Now you look at it as a whole… like a giant art project. Andy had his painting and all that other stuff people thought was superfluous.
And thank God for Interview, because Interview kept him in the mix. Everybody wanted to be on the cover of Interview. It was the most important magazine in America, if not the most important pop-culture magazine in the world. Seriously, it was the shit. If you were anyone interested in what was going on in the worlds of arts, culture, music, pop, everything – it was all in Interview. And we didn’t have the internet. Interview was so fucking glamorous, and the photography was so fucking good, and the interviews were so crazy, and you were just dying to see who was on the cover of the next issue. That kept Andy in the mix. But I was there – he didn’t sell one Dollar Sign painting at Leo Castelli (Gallery). I went to the Robert Miller openings, and there were like 75 people. It wasn’t crowded…
And he would go to the Haring openings, and they’d be packed, people on the street. You couldn’t get into the Keith Haring openings at Tony Shafrazi. It took forever. And he saw what was going on. He knew what people were saying. It was hurtful… If you know that stuff, and you know that others have dealt with it, it makes your life seem much easier. You can deal with it. The strength has to come from within you. If you get your head twisted around by money or compliments, or notoriety, or so-called fame, because, you know, in reality, my fame as a photographer is nothing compared to a Brad Pitt or a Michael Jackson. People say, ‘Oh you’re famous.’ I’m like, ‘Not really, come on. I can walk through the mall, you know?’ Besides, it was never a goal to do that. I really just wanted to make memorable images. So that was never something I wanted. But it certainly doesn’t compare to what those people go through … So, I just take it all with a grain of salt. I have to know within myself if I’m doing right. My parents raised me to be like, ‘Hey, we don’t care what you do, just be a good person. We’ll be proud of you if you’re a garbage man.’ My mom used to always say that to me. You just have to be a good person – that’s number one. So that’s something I’m working on. Cause people say, ‘How do you feel to be so successful?’ And I say, well, I’ve never really felt that. I’ve always felt I’m this work in progress - at being a good person or a good artist or more. So when I reach that stage I’ll let you know.’
DD: Over the last several years, your creative repertoire has grown to include videos, stage design and film direction. How do you think these mediums complement your photography?
I think it enriches your life. I learned so much making Rize – things I never dreamed of – things I knew cerebrally but didn’t know in a profound sense. Taking chances, doing new things. People told me I couldn’t do it, but I had to. I think what kept me doing it was belief in the subject, and believing it had a greater good. That’s what makes me do the work I’m doing now. I really do believe in art. I believe that a world without art is not worth living in. I believe that art can influence people and can inspire people and connect people. I’m trying to achieve that with stills. Sometimes it happens. I know I’ve inspired kids to be photographers, but I’d like to do even more. I think that’s the fuel. Having a greater belief – it’s not for notoriety or things like that.
>DD: Do you think that’s a minefield for younger artists?
DLC: Young artists get success too quickly, and that can really spin their heads if they’re not centered. And as a fine artist – showing in galleries – it’s really difficult to not become degraded. I got to work all that out over 20 years, so I’m lucky. I didn’t sell anything in the 80s when I showed in galleries, before magazines, thank God! I got to mature, to learn technique, to learn to communicate, and I use those things today.
DD: If you had it to do again, what would you do differently?
DLC: I’m doing it now. And all I can say is, thank God I’m healthy and have energy. We don’t know how much time we ever have, but I think I was in such a rush for most of the time from the mid-80s on because I thought I had Aids and I wouldn’t get tested. I have been through a lot myself, and I have always apologised when I have been a nightmare to people. I always tried to make it up shortly thereafter.
We had a lot of fun, and a lot of really good times during that crazy period. Making those pictures and making those sets – it’s great now because it’s more fun for everyone. And it’s not just about fun – it’s about hard work – but there’s less of that insane energy, where it’s, ‘The world’s going to end if we don’t make this deadline!’ There’s no longer that.
DD: Do you think there’s some critical bias against your fine art work because of your fashion and commercial background?
DLC: I use pop imagery – that’s my vocabulary; glamour and beauty is my vocabulary. They get angry when you use pop imagery (the things that are accessible) to talk about anything other than the completely superficial. And you know what? Let ‘em be angry … I’m into narrative and clarity. I’m not into obscurity. I’m not into people having to read and research – I’m just into the title, and the image, and the image being the language. If people don’t want to take ten seconds to look at a picture and put it together, I can’t help that, but I stand by it and I love it. And I will keep doing it. And I ain’t going away.
DD: When you were starting out, was there a photographer whose work changed your expectations of the medium?
DLC: Early on, there was Avedon and Baron Von Gloeden. And then my dad got me a history of fashion photography book, and I liked everybody in it. There were three pictures by Guy Bourdin, and I was really mesmerised by the colour. Just beautiful. I love glamour and beauty. But it’s kind of like dessert, you know? It can’t be what you live on. It won’t sustain you. It’s part of life, but it’s not all of life.
DD: What’s inspiring you most now coming into the new decade?
DLC: Trying to express ideas of enlightenment through nature, and this idea of losing paradise or epic nature, and natural settings as a metaphor for heaven or enlightenment. And using the figure within those settings, and keeping it still me – keeping the things I love within those images. Getting out of the sets and out of the square boxes, going back into nature and using that background, which is vanishing and which is precious. To make it out of the realm of fashion and celebrity photography that still captures people’s imagination.
I want to touch people – to have them go into a gallery and come out feeling differently than when they walked in. Move them in some way, like music does. Music can really move you to the soul, and I want to make pictures that feel like that. That’s the goal. And if I’ve gotten there or not, I don’t know. But that’s what I strive for. That keeps me going.
By Anna Carnick