Hotshoe April-May 2012

Some years ago at the height of his fame as a fashion photographer, David LaChapelle had a brush with mortality and began to question his life, which had taken him from the wilds of Fairfield, Connecticut, in the 1960s, to the New York of Studio 54 where he met Andy Warhol along his path to become an artist during the 1970s, to being the go-to guy for Interview, Vogue, Tank, I-D and countless other magazines, with a number of important books including the influential LaChapelle Land (1997) and Hotel LaChapelle (1999), as well as innumerable gallery and museum shows.

After completing an award-winning documentary, Rize, in 2005, suffering from extreme exhaustion, and having survived the deaths of many friends and colleagues to AIDS, he feared that he was also infected. In an interview last year with The New York Times he told Guy Trebay, “It was 2006, and the money was rolling in and I thought I was going to die, … I was 15 back then (when I started in the art world) and in New York and having sex… It’s the luck of the draw, really, I never got tested, and for 15 years I just assumed I was going to die.” When he did finally get tested, he was not infected, but it was a major wake-up call for him. After twenty years of ceaseless work at a fever pitch on the top of the commercial and fashion world, he was burnt-out.

LaChapelle turned away from the world of commercial fashion photography, purchased a farm in Hawaii and began a series of allegorical, if still outré, tableaux chronicling the excesses and absences of morality of contemporary capitalism. Miracles and Disasters, Auguries of Innocence, The Awakening, and The Deluge and the Raft all have an apocalyptic religiously themed obsession that still partakes of the extravagant style of his earlier work.

LaChapelle’s latest series, developed concurrently with these tableaux, is of a different, more contemplative order. Earth Laughs in Flowers, (2008–2011) is a much more inward-looking series of ten large still-lifes referencing classic Dutch vanitas and memento mori paintings of flowers. Perhaps best exemplified by the likes of Harmen Steenwych (1612–1656) and Pieter Claez (1597/8–1660), these still-lifes of decaying flowers, fruits, skulls, and the like were moral reminders of the transitory nature of life after the collapse of the Dutch Empire—symbolized by the loss of its American colonies and the first financial panic, the collapse of Tulip Mania in the late 1630s—but a few years after the peak of its power.

Earth Laughs in Flowers takes its title from a line in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1846 poem, Hamatreya, itself a take on the vanities of the founders of New England, where both he and LaChapelle were born:

“Where are these men? Asleep
beneath their grounds:
And strangers, fond as they, their
furrows plough.
Earth laughs in flowers, to see her
boastful boys
Earth-proud, proud of the earth which
is not theirs;
Who steer the plough, but cannot
steer their feet Clear of the grave.”

Bill Kouwenhoven: What motivated you at this time (2007) to move from commercial work to these still life that make up this new series?

David LaChapelle: I do things intuitively. I have been dealing with flowers and stilllifes and the Old Masters at art school. I thought I had my reasons for doing them, but, really, they are about me. They are really about where I am about in my life.

My mother is going through a kind of transition now at 83 and she is sick. One of my dearest employees for the past 20 years cannot go on any more. He’s in his 50s and his health is giving out on him. This has made me realize how life is always in chapters and that things are always in transition. I appreciate that this is not just talk but that we have to appreciate every day and those transitions. We need to find the beauty in those transitions. The still-lives are like a Memento Mori. I mean I wish my mother were more up and about and more of her old self, but I know that is not going to happen. In a short time, I know that she won’t be here at all. So I have to enjoy those moments when I am with her now because it is constant change.

BK: Were there other, political or social reasons, in addition to being burnt out from working non-stop for almost 20 years?

DLC: Right now, what I am most happy about is working again. I left commercial and fashion photography at the top. That was what my heart told me to do. I couldn’t see myself getting old doing it. I didn’t want to be in my 50s and 60s doing that kind of work with celebrities. Fuck that. Fashion no longer interested me. I was bringing heavier and heavier concepts into my pictures and the magazines started freaking out. I didn’t fit their needs any more, and they weren’t fulfilling mine. It became a struggle to get my pictures published even if I did show all the clothes.

You know nothing is expected of those (commercial) photographs, but when you put a picture on the wall of a museum or a gallery, more is expected of it.

Time is limited. We don’t have forever as we think we do in our 20s. I know that life is a circle, and I am not scared of death, but I want to live life in its fullest. I want to be the best person that I can, and if I cannot make the choices that I know I should make, then when am I ever going to do that or am I never going to do that? If not now, then when? That is the awareness that drives the Vanitas. Am I going to live up to the standards that I know I have to live up to? Now is the fucking time to do it. If I don’t, then I am not living up to my fullest potential.

When I started this work three or so years ago in 2007, I had been reading about the forefathers of the country and what brilliant men they were. They had their own personal reality, but they also had this profound knowledge of the world. I had just read the autobiography of Martin Luther King with all of his compiled speeches and sermons. Politicians don’t know how to speak that way anymore. I was talking about this in my picture, America, with the “Good Luck” and “Get Well” balloons with all the flowers in the bouquet, Air Force One, and the flag in flames from candles on a piece of chocolate cake. Our system is broken.

BK: This was just as the economy was imploding and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq seemed endless.

DLC: Among the principles Martin Luther King talked about was the Viet Nam war, and when he did so, every one including the NAACP turned their back against him. He was alone. Even in the first weeks of the war he came out and said that this was wrong and evil and that we should not do this. How is it that all these young boys, black and white, can go to these villages, burn them down, can kill together, can die together, yet when they get back home, they cannot eat lunch together at a restaurant. He knew that all the money being poured into the war machine would be taken out of Civil Rights programs and from progress at home, and now, here we are 50 years later doing it again in Iraq and Afghanistan. We keep doing it because we find it too embarrassing to admit it was a failure and to pull out. We’re just making more orphans and people who hate us.

So, yes, it’s a picture of flowers, but that is why the flag is burning.

BK: But they also address our mortality and very real disconnectedness, right?

DLC: People look to art to get some sort of nourishment or sustenance or to explain the world we are living in today or at least to shine some light on this contemporary culture in this moment where we are alive. Contemporary art has that role. The Vanitas for me is about personal growth and the idea that we are not here on Earth forever and that we cannot lose the connection to Nature. You see this in the plastic wrappings in Deathless WInter and in the food wrappers in Springtime and Summer or the cast-off cellphones in Early Fall. We seem to have lost it. The debate over whether it is too late does not matter, but we still have to find the connection. In the end, we must do the best we can and not give into apathy, hopelessness, or anger. We must do the very, very best we can and experience joy. We have to do this. Otherwise, the other people in the world, who would give anything to be sitting here where you and I are with a nice roof over our heads, with clothes and food, would say to us: what is wrong with those guys? Are they crazy? All those people would say that if we don’t have joy in our lives, we are the most fucked up white guys! We should be grateful and thankful for everything, from the smallest thing to the most unexpected, and to live in gratitude. I don’t understand a lot of the art I look at these days. I don’t know what the artists are trying to say with it. We are living in such precarious and intense times today on this planet. So many things are coming to a head, and everybody who is conscious feels it. For this not to be addressed is pretty incredible. They are making this work that are just giant novelties—a giant inflatable teddy-bear, a giant puppy, and then a giant hello kitty. Oh really, another giant blown-up stuffed animal: what does that say about anything, and to whom, besides that it is worth $26 million dollars?

BK: Looking back, what do you think?

DLC: Life is just a crazy ride, and I was just so fucking lucky then that I got to do what I wanted to do when I came to New York as a kid. I was very immature and life says you have to grow up and learn some things and do some things and mature, and then you’ll get a chance to say what you want to say.

BK: And looking forward?

DLC: I want to do a new series called Paradise Regained after Milton and Blake where people have made it through the Deluge and have finally reached the shores of Paradise. I want it to be a metaphor for Enlightenment and epic natural beauty. It is like going from the Deluge through the Storm on the Raft to struggle towards truth. Some people survive and make it to shores of Paradise or Enlightenment. I believe this is our journey.

As humans, we may never reach that moment or that place, but maybe we have little flickering moments of enlightenment. We have to keep those moments going along as we can. We have to create lives where it is more possible to have those moments of enlightenment where we are better at what we do and where we are better human beings.

Earth Laughs in Flowers was simultaneously on view at four locations from mid February to late March: Fred Torres Collaborations in New York City, St. Moritz Art Masters, St. Moritz, Switzerland, Robilant and Voena in London and Milan. A small monograph of the same title accompanies the exhibition. Another exhibition, Making History, a somewhat satirical take on American culture from the 1970s to today will be on view at the Museum for Modern Art in Frankfurt, Germany, from 20 April to 8 July. For further information see www.fredtorres.com and www.davidlachapelle.com.

An interview with David LaChapelle by Bill Kouwenhoven

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