Hero December, 1999


“I’m sorry for making you wait,” celebrated photographer David LaChapelle tells me with a sigh that comes through loud and clear over our long-distance connection.

“We’re finishing up a shoot and I’ve got to get on a plane tomorrow to go to Paris for another one,” he tells me, “and right now I honestly don’t know whether I’m coming or going.”

LaChapelle is at his studio in Manhattan. Behind him, I hear the clamor of assistants disassembling the set of his visual fantasy du jour. I am in Los Angeles, having waited through two re-schedulings and now another half-hour delay for a chance talk with the photographer about his new book Hotel LaChapelle, a follow up to 1996 LaChapelle Land (Simon and Schuster/Callaway Editions) which earned a slot on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list.

Our locations are poetically appropriate, in as much as we are in the west- and east-coast hubs of the entertainment industry, two mean towns that form a set of opening and closing parentheses for a heartland whose excesses LaChapelle’s photography both exemplifies and lampoons.

“I’ve really wanted to get with you,” he continues to apologize, pursuing the point almost to a fault. “But I had to get this picture right. You know how it is. I’m a perfectionist. What can I say?”

Though his question is rhetorical, in point of fact, with a camera and the latest digital retouching software, there is plenty LaChapelle can say. And by calling himself a perfectionist, he is merely laying claim to a trait which critics, boosters and detractors alike have seen reflected in his work for years.

For those unfamiliar with LaChapelle’s signature visual mania, getting up to speed with his off-kilter gloss is as easy as flipping through recent editions of Interview, Detour, and French Vogue. Perhaps even more tellingly (if one subscribes to the theory that advertising is among the truest barometers of a society’s tastes and desires) look for LaChapelle’s garish billboards for Camel cigarettes and the surrealistic scenes he dreamed up for Diesel jeans ads. There’s invariably too much color, too much going on, and that’s how LaChapelle likes it.

By its very nature, his nightmarish imagery invites controversy. Richard Avedon in New York Magazine called LaChapelle “the Fellini of photography,” while another of the same periodical’s writers suggested, “David LaChapelle should have his artistic license suspended.”

I ask if he takes exception to reviewers using the term “pornography” in conjunction with his work, as they have in response to the efforts of other avant-garde photographers such as Robert Mapplethorpe.

“I don’t think that’s a bad thing, do you?” he wonders. “But my work is plainly not pornographic I just enjoy making pictures that walk the line.”

Though certainly sexuality plays a large role in LaChapelle’s work. It exudes from nearly every page, and is arguably the most recurrent theme of his photography.

“Of course,” he says adamantly. “I wouldn’t be around without it.”

Can we take the circus tend eroticism of his photos as a reflection of his own particular sexual bent?

“Yes and no,” smirks the openly-gay artist. “I find the women in my photos very sexy as well as the men I like to play with both. There are no boundaries here.”

Is he a voyeur?

“Aren’t we all?”

As LaChapelle told the New York Times in 1994, looking back on the first few years of his career, “I remembered that Truman Capote quote, ‘Good taste is the death of art,’ and I embraced it.”

A significant part of LaChapelle’s last decade has been spent living out of a suitcase in various glam hotels around the world, and it is this lifestyle that gave rise to the title of his new collection.

“I’ve gotten so used to living in them that I’ve made my apartment look like one so that I won’t feel away from home when I actually am home,” he writes in the afterword to the new volume.

“But more than that,” he tells me, “I view this book as a collection of people that make up the time we live in. It’s really about America today.”

The work is populated with images of the famous and not-so-famous, posed in half-destroyed office cubicles, suburban residential streets, plastic surgery clinics, cornfields, and the Las Vegas Strip, in addition to LaChapelle’s more outrageous and abstract settings.

Envisioning the Hotel LaChapelle as a real business establishment rather than a fictional one, I ask the photographer who he’d hire to work the door of his hotel as a greeter.

“Amanda Lepore,” he says after considering the question for a moment. “She’s a friend of mine that I took some pictures of for the book. She’s good at doing nothing. She’d be perfect to stand at the door and say ‘Hello’ and then just stare at you.”

And who might work behind the front desk, checking in irritable jet-lagged travelers furtive couples bent on renting a room for a quick romp? LaChapelle pauses, repeating my question to a nearby assistant. Then he brightens, having lit upon the answer.

“I’ve got it,” he says, getting into the spirit of the game. “It’d be Marilyn Manson. He’d be perfect. Marilyn is very dry, very organized. He’d be good at dealing with people’s bullshit. He’s got a good sense of humor and nothing upsets him.”

And who would LaChapelle like to have come knocking on the door to his private suite, dressed in a red room-service jacket, bearing a cart heavy with champagne, caviar and lobster, or maybe some bath beads?

“That one’s easy. Send Ryan Phillipe. He’s very accommodating. We had this shoot for Armani where we used him, and he’d do anything. I had him running naked through a rainstorm and he was like, ‘No big deal.’ I think I could stand having him bring me champagne.”

I remind LaChapelle of an anecdote he once related to the New York Times about his first encounter with Andy Warhol, in which the then 18-year-old novice presented Warhol with one of his first pictures and had it languidly decreed “great” by the pop-art visionary.

“Later on, I learned that he could look at a cookie and say ‘Great,’” LaChapelle told the Times.

While the lesser-known faces and bodies in LaChapelle work deserve note, it is celebrity portraits which garner him the most attention. The phrase “cult of personality” comes to mind and, as I think of a cultural landscape dotted with Ivana Trumps and Kato Kaelins, I ask if he shares Warhol’s trademark fascination with the predominantly American phenomenon of celebrity - perhaps, more specifically, notoriety – as an end unto itself.

“The thing you have to understand about Andy Warhol is that he didn’t get into analyzing it. He had a very straightforward attraction to the glamorous side of celebrity. I think that’s why he started Interview. And I totally understand it. The escapism is important in our lives. I think it’s especially true for disenfranchised people, for gay people. It’s a natural reaction to our not fitting in. We’re looking for someone who’s odd like we are, and we’re also looking to get away. Think of the glitter of Hollywood. It’s always been important to us. From the Busby Berkeley musicals and all through this century, its been a big part of American life, for gay people in particular.

I ask how LaChapelle’s notion of celebrity has changed during the course of his career.

“For one thing, when I was a kid I thought that life was easy for people that were famous,” he tells me. “But the truth is that it’s just as hard for them as for anyone. They have the same kind of worries. Like for a movie star, their next film is their next paycheck. They’re just as concerned about their future as any person who has a job. And being famous, being a celebrity, it comes with a lot of responsibility. Their job, if you want to call it that, these people are the presidents and CEOs of their own company, and that company is their body, their image. A lot of famous people I know are workaholics. It can some off as being self-centered, but I think the truth is that they have no other choice. See, there’s really no point at which you’ve magically arrived. They always have to be “on.”

“All in all, it makes me glad to be behind the camera rather than in front,: LaChapelle continues. “My work is dissected rather than my face and body. Richard Avedon can walk down Main Street and not be recognized. Someone like Jennifer Love Hewitt can’t. But that first principle is true for me with making photos, just like with celebrities and just like with everyone. I’m always struggling.”

But that struggle is lessened by laChapelle’s knack for convincing celebrities to pose in settings nad situations that are often startling.

“That’s one thing that’s gotten easier with time,” he tells me. “Now when people come here, they expect something outrageous and over the top. I don’t have to explain it all as much any more.”

In the new book, we see Mark wahlberg in two side-by-side pictures. In one image he is bloody-kunckled and sports a bruised eye. In the other shot he is made up as a boozy, after-hours drag queen.

“Those pictures happened right after he was misquoted in some magazine saying some things that people thought were homophobic. Well, the truth is that he’s not homophobic, he’s really cool. And so when I said ‘Let’s do you in drag,’ he was totally into it.”

Another picture in the collection is a scene centered around Pamela Anderson, who LaChapelle recently described as “an exhibitionist” in The Advocate. In the shot, Anderson lies on the pavement in the headlights of wrecked Mercedes-Benz, head shiny-bald, while a handsome male companion kneels nearby holding a blood wig, a look of horror on his face.

“When I was working up that one,” LaChapelle says, “it occurred to me that Pam’s life was like a car crash. You can’t take your eyes off it. The thing about her is that hse’s a pinup, she’s not Meryl Streep, and she knows it. She’s got her feet on the ground. And that picture is a perfect example of what I mean about having to explain things. It comes down to trust between the photographer and the subject. If I were to just talk her through that picture it would sound so flat. I mean, can you imagine it? ‘Pamela, I see you lying front of a crashed car,” and so on.”

I am struck by how, in this post-Di era, the image assumes an added creepiness LaChapelle may or may not have intended when deciding to include it in his book. Given the spate of criticism facing celebrity photojournalism in recent years, I am curious if there are any personalities LaChapelle would feel hesitant approaching for a session.

“Absolutely not. Anyone is fair game. I mean that.”

How about someone with whom the photographer might have strong philosophical or political disagreement? Say, arch-conservative Senator Jesse Helms, notorious for savaging the type of free-rein expressionism that is LaChapelle’s stock and trade?

“Wow. How do you photograph ignorance?” the artist asks. “I guess it’s easy when I get the assignments to take a picture of Madonna, or David Bowie. Taking pictures of Elton, for instance, that’s like going to an amusement park. But for someone like Jesse Helms, I’d really have to give it some thought. He’s done so much damage to the world. I’d have to figure out a way to capture who he is, and that’s extreme evil and extreme intelligence all rolled into one. Still, it’d be easier to do a picture of him than of some new starlet who isn’t really anything yet. Like Madonna and Bowie, Jesse Helms has substance to him. It gives me something to work with.”

The personalities he mentions share not only substance, but a degree of theatricality as well, which plays handily into LaChapelle’s visual style. Leafing through Hotel LaChapelle, I am repeatedly drawn to the subjects’ exaggerated facial expressions. They often seem to be shouting or crying out or lost in arm-waving throes of ecstasy.

Half-seriously I ask if LaChapelle has considered directing opera.

“Why not? I want to try a bunch of different things. I’ve done music videos and commercials and played around with movies, so, I mean why not opera? As a matter of fact, I just shot some pictures of Madonna as Maria Callas playing Norma, so you may be on to something.”

Is there anyone who LaChapelle would like to shoot but hasn’t yet had the opportunity to approach?

“Michael Jackson, the real one,” he says without hesitation (there is a picture of a Michael Jackson look-alike in Hotel LaChapelle). “I’m completely fascinated by him, the ups and downs of that man’s life.”

In truth, Jackson’s physical being bears comparison to a LaChapelle photograph. Both are heaily re-worked using modern technology, and both, in the hypernatrual state that results, end up bearing only a passing resemblance to the reality from which they sprung.

Just as Hotel LaChapelle chronicles an epoch in the life of an artist, it may signal the end of an epoch in the life of a man.

“People say photographs don’t like,” Lachapelle once told Life magazine. “Mine do.”

When I ask him to eleaborate, he references the new book.

“Take hotels. They’re places you don’t really live. People do things in hotels they wouldn’t do in their everyday lives,” he says. “That’s true of my photos, too. They both contain some degree of fantasy. To me, that’s always been a lot more interesting than reality.”

The dilemma facing LaChapelle is that he has been overtaken by the freedom this heady realm of fantasy affords an artist such as himself.

“There’s no real separation between my life and my work,” he writes in the afterword to Hotel LaChapelle. “When you set up these scnes and images every day, they become your life”

I ask what this means in real terms.

“I’ve spent the last ten years traveling,” he tells me. “I got around, I slept with everyone. Working for Traveler magazine, I saw the world, photographed oceans, deserts, capitals and forests, you name it. As a kid, I wanted that so bad. I always though familiarity bred contempt. But I’m changing. I could never have imagined having a vacation home, for instance, somewhere you go back to summer after summer and you know where everything is in the house, and you know the paths worn the dirt and how everything smells. But now that doesn’t seem so bad.”

With his mention of having slept around, I am curious if LaChapelle has discovered a similar value in romantic stability as he has in sense of place.

He laughs when the issue is raised.

“Actually, yes,” he says. “In the past, I could never have seen myself settling down with somebody. But I’m getting to where I want to know a person inside and out.”

Is there someone in particular to whom he is referring?

“I’m working on being taken back by someone I was not so good to.”

Are his tactics succeeding?

“I think so. We’ll see. Ask me in a month.”

I dangle the question of what lessons, earned at a lesser or higher cost, LaChapelle has learned over his decade of fruitful vagrancy.

“For one thing,” he says, “I’ve learned how to keep my mouth shut. I’ve learned how to be more polite with people I’m a pretty reactive guy and it can be hard for me to chill out. Not that I’m some prima donna – in fact I’m very collaborative when it comes to work. But I’ve had to learn that when things don’t go the way I’d like them to, I have to take a more chilled point of view”

Oce again, I recall his afterwrod to Hotel LaChapelle:

“The good thing about hotel rooms is the clean sheets,” he writes. “Every day, no matter how dirty you’ve been all day long, you get clean sheets.”

Now it seems LaChapelle may have reached a point in his evolution where he is prepared to discover the joy of responsibility of taking care of his own laundry. As he unpacks his bags and settles in for the next phase of his professional and personal life, we have the pleasure of viewing the souvenirs and snapshots of the long, strange trip he’s taken.

by Ben Patrick Johnson

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