The latest work by David LaChapelle, the superstar godfather of high-camp portraiture, is a serious artistic take on global politics.
Of all the glittery images in the celebrity pantheon, photographer David LaChapelle's have long been the best examples of over-the-top kinky glam. In the past two decades, he's snapped everyone who is anyone in luxuriantly lurid and deliciously rude set-ups where clothes seem to fall as the colors are turned up.
Taking its cue from his 2007 Michelangelo pastiche Deluge, LaChapelle's latest work is a play on Botticelli's Renaissance masterpiece Venus and Mars. Featuring Naomi Campbell; a languid, semi-nude young man; cherubic little boys; and an abundance of gold, jewels and satin, at first it seems typical LaChapelle. Look a little closer, though, and you notice that one of the children holds a machine gun. Amid the spoils of war is a diamond-studded skull.
Then there's the backdrop: a slum wall made of washing-powder boxes in which a hole has been blasted, opening out onto a blighted landscape. Entitled The Rape of Africa, this is LaChapelle's updating of the mythic struggle between love and war con in terms of the West's relationship with the developing world.
Has the photographer renowned for all things super-luxe got serious? "Fashion and beauty are the good things in life" says the 47-years-old from his home in Los Angeles. "But when they become everything, you're not fully living your potential". Unusually tall, dark, tattooed and body-beautiful, LaChapelle sums up the LA dream.
A few years ago however, like many a star worn through by success, it seems he was looking to find himself. Rize, his 2005 documentary about teen dancers from an LA ghetto, had received rave reviews. So too had his production design for Elton John's Las Vegas musical extravaganza, The Red Piano.
Yet he'd gone 18 months without a day off "I was definitely a workaholic, I felt I'd done everything I had to say through magazines, and I didn't want to be photographing the "new Lindsay Lohan".
LaChapelle retreated to the Hawaiian island of Maui, creating an off-the-grid organic farm where he now spends half his time. When he returned to photography, it was not at the behest of Madonna, Leonardo or any of the other famous names he's worked with. Although his magazine commissions have long appeared in galleries, he'd decided to pursue art photography proper.
Using the language of fashion to address political issues might seem risky; but LaChapelle says of his work: "I'm not going to use violent imagery to talk about a degraded, violent subject. That's the job of the photojournalist. If I did that, you'd think, "What happened to him? How phoney"
LaChapelle got his first break in the early 1980s, thanks to the era's hippest publication Interview, and its proprietor Andy Warhol. "The only thing he ever actually told me was "Do what you want, but make everyone look good" he says.
With little more than this advice, LaChapelle landed in London in his early twenties, where he would spend a formative year. His friends included the legendary performance artist Leigh Bowery and film-maker John Maybury. Last year he worked with alternative pop chanteuse Lady Gaga - whose weird glamour owes much to influences like Bowery and LaChapelle himself - to produce the artwork for a limited-edition version of her "The Fame Monster "album. Although he admits he hadn't wanted to see another pop star as long as he lived, when friends dragged him to Gaga's gig at a Los Angeles gay club, he was awestruck: "She played that tiny club like it was Wembley. She's like reincarnated Freddie Mercury."
His photos of her wearing little more than a cascade of bubbles reveled in sumptuous, futuristic kitsch, but off-set, their antics were more low-key. Gaga spent the summer with LaChapelle in Maui, playing every night on a broken-down piano. "If you're quiet and sit with yourself, life takes you to different places" he says. From organic farming to high fashion, global issues and Renaissance art, it's simply all in a day's work in LaChapelIe land.
By Skye Sherwin