RIZE & SHINE
“Photography became a way of escaping the darkness of the world.”
There is no middle ground with David LaChapelle: either you love him or you hate him. The screaming colours! The loud humour! The glitz and the glamour! The freaks and outcasts! The voyeurism! The over the top scenarios! The giant sets! The outrageous clothes! The plastic! The sex! The religious connotations! These are all trademarks of LaChapelle that have earned him as much acclaim as contempt.
However, there is no denying that LaChapelle has created a unique body of work that sets him apart from any other contemporary photographer. Continuing in the spirit of Helmut Newton, Pierre and Gilles and Andy Warhol, who gave him his first assignment in the 1980s, he has succeeded in developing his very own universe and unmistakable visual language, becoming one of the best-known photographers of our times.
Born in 1969 in Connecticut into a regular middle-class background, LaChapelle found himself dropping out of school by the time he was 15, returning briefly for a basic education in drawing and photography at an arts high school before moving to New York at the age of 17. Starting out as a regular contributor to Interview magazine, LaChapelle quickly worked his way into the world of fashion and celebrities. Twenty years later, his bursting portfolio includes virtually anybody with a ring to their name, from Madonna to Eminem, from Britney Spears to Leonardo DiCaprio. He has produced dozens of music videos as well as fashion editorials for every magazine of rank and prestige and advertising campaigns for some of the largest brands in the world. At 38, David LaChapelle has achieved everything a photographer could wish for.
And yet, maybe LaChapelle has always been celebrated for the wrong reasons. All too easily categorized within the bubblegum fantasy world of celebrities and super models, he has rarely been accorded the second glance which would reveal the transvestites and junkies lurking in the background, the frustration with consumerism and the media that are hidden underneath the shiny surface of his images. It was only with his down-to-earth documentary film Rize in 2005, about a new dance movement in the ghettos of Los Angeles, that David LaChapelle would motivate us to have a closer look at the person behind the image.
With the publication of Heaven to Hell – the third book of a trilogy – and his recent move to Hawaii, LaChapelle has now announced a clean break with his past. Refusing to work any longer within the commercial framework of celebrity and fashion photography, he intends to focus on personal work and gallery exhibitions instead, beginning with several current and upcoming shows in Berlin, New York, Buenos Aires and Milan. At 38, David LaChapelle is just at the beginning of a new career.
First off, we’d like to clear something that we’ve always been wondering about: is David Lachapelle your real name?
Do you want to ask my mom?
It just seems to be too good to be true.
Ask my mom. I told her to change her name, too, and my sister, I made her change her Name and my grandfather had to change his name…
It is only because it would be the perfect artist’s name for the kind of work you do. For example, it has this reference to the church and you use a lot of religious references…
Well, I was brought up as a Catholic. I had a priest – he keeps calling… But I don’t really subscribe to one religion: I’ll go to a temple, I’ll go to church, I’ll go to whatever. I do like the idea of philosophy and enlightenment, the idea and learning process of bettering yourself. I do believe there are great prophets who were on the planet at one time or another. I think Jesus was just another artist on the planet and his art was love. I shot Kanye West for the cover of Rolling Stone not as Christ, but as the Passion of the Christ. I reproduced the box cover of the biggest-grossing movie in American history. People got very upset about this image of Kanye West as black Jesus. I didn’t understand it. I don’t necessarily like what fundamentalists are doing to any religion, be it Christianity or any other religion. It is the fundamental teachings taken down the wrong path.
The way you stage the portraits of celebrities and models can be seen in the tradition of people like Helmut Newton or Andy Warhol and, indeed, you are currently showing at the Helmut Newton foundation in Berlin. Was he an influence when you were younger?
When I was growing up, he was definitely an artistic influence in my life. When I became aware of the world, Andy Warhol, Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon and Federico Fellini were the people who really opened me up. I like them all for different reasons.
When I first saw Warhol, I remember standing in front of this Marilyn Monroe at the
Wadsworth Museum in Connecticut. I was on a school field trip and I thought that this is something adult that I shouldn’t be looking at it because of its texture, it looked so sexy to me. And when I first saw a Helmut Newton picture I really knew I shouldn’t be looking at it because it was definitely something that was adult. Looking at these girls, I couldn’t believe people could actually live like that, it was such a fantasy. And I needed that fantasy because– even though at home it was great – school was a nightmare, which made life even harder. It is difficult for a kid, going to school and being an outcast. I was escaping into these fashion books and magazines searching for Helmut Newton and Richard Avedon’s work. Seeing this woman in a tuxedo and another woman standing naked in the alleyway and these beautiful rooms with these impossibly beautiful women looking so strong… You know, it was exciting! At the time, I had my whole room plastered with these huge advertising posters and every week there’d be another great picture by Helmut Newton to put on my wall. I would just look at them and I wanted to be there – wherever it was, I had to be there. I had to find those people, those girls and those places.
DREAMS & REALITIES
This leads us back to your name and the idea of the chapel being a place apart from reality, somewhere where you go for refuge. You often talk about creating a different reality. Why is that so important for you?
Well, the world can be dark sometimes and I like to comment on that world but I also like to create this universe where things are a little different. It is just my way. I don’t really think about it too much; I never did. Since I was a teenager, I liked to create my own reality because I was using it like an escape to somewhere better. Because of personal things going on, I would withdraw to the art room and make drawings and paintings, and then later I learned photography. It became a way of escaping for a time the darkness of the world.
What was so difficult about your youth that you needed this escape, though?
I hated school with a passion. I just hated everything about it from a really young age, from second grade on – actually, first grade. It was a nightmare. God, I just dreaded it. But I knew I was going to be an artist, so I would just sit there and tell myself, ‘It doesn’t matter. You’re going to be an artist, it doesn’t matter. You don’t need algebra. You don’t need this shit.’ I didn’t know what the fuck they were talking about. So I didn’t pay attention because I didn’t understand it anyway. On the other side, I was an outcast and I was getting beaten up. I had a horrible time. Because I wanted to be so different from everybody, I dressed really differently. This was the age before MTV, so dressing differently was, you know, not the thing to do... I was so conscious of magazines and fashion and music that I was dressing like my heroes at the time, which were people like David Bowie. Androgyny and shit like that, which was not something that anybody did at the time. I didn’t even know what androgyny was when I was dressing androgynous, wearing skinny tights and flat-heeled shoes and thrift store clothes. And I was getting beaten up, tortured! So I hated it on two levels: I hated what they were teaching – I didn’t understand it and it frustrated me, math and science especially–and secondly, I couldn’t pay attention to those classes because I was being picked on so much, there was so much bullshit. So, eventually, I dropped out. I was 15 when I moved from Connecticut to New York. I lived in the East Village from 15 to 17, working in nightclubs. I kept in touch with my parents – my parents were great. But they were not happy about me leaving. It was a very odd time for us as a family. They just did not get me at all. My mom is from Germany, part Lithuanian, so it was like in the war, school is the most important thing – and here I was quitting school. She just couldn’t understand why. ‘Well, don’t dress like that then if they are picking on you. Why wear that to school?’ But I couldn’t help it. When you are a kid you have so much going on. You just have to have that dress and that outfit; it means so much to you. You don’t want to look like the other ones because you hate them! So I wound up in New York and my father came and got me after a year and a half, saying, ‘You have to finish school.’ Luckily, there was this great art school in North Carolina that I had heard about and which accepted me.
And that’s how you got your degree?
I didn’t get a degree because I didn’t have enough credits. To this day, I don’t have a high school diploma. But I went to school there and I loved it; it was an art high school. I learnt photography there and I used to draw and paint all the time. I was very good at that for my age, at life drawing, figurative drawing. My pictures always stood out; the teachers were very supportive. And I knew I was good. I’m not going to be falsely humble – I was good. But then I picked up photography and I knew that was it, that was the end of drawing. I knew from the first roll of film, with the first picture, that I didn’t want to draw anymore. I knew I had found what I wanted. For my first roll of film, I left the photography classroom with my camera and I walked down the stairs. I took a picture of the light hitting the steps and a crack in the wall and by the end of the roll, after 36 pictures, all my friends flipped around buck naked in my dorm room, posing like statues. And that’s the truth – I still have the film. And I was like, ‘Wow, people will do anything to have their picture taken.’ You have the camera and, I don’t know, it makes people do crazy things. People love being documented. There is this great joy in it, and I like the camaraderie of it. I like looking at other people. People always ask me about my style, and I don’t think it is a style. I just like beauty, I like color, I like naked people, I like the idea of it. I like it when people take off their clothes for me and it’s not necessarily in a sexual context. It’s liberating. Sometimes it’s just being alternative and sometimes it’s simply not having clothes on – clothes always tell you what that person’s status is: Are they dressed fancy or are they dressed poor? Are they dressed in fashion? What year of fashion are they in? It’s a status. When they take their clothes off they don’t have that armor.
It is quite impressive how you can get the biggest celebrities to do anything for you, whether it makes them look silly or not.
I’ll never make anybody look bad; I’ll make them look beautiful. I want them to look good. I am never picking on the people personally. It’s more about the viewer. It’s more about us than it is about the celebrities. It’s more about that look that people want to portray. I like the seductiveness of the images. They seduce you with the colors and the sets, hopefully – it works for me. And I want them to be touching, to make you look at the people in a different way than when you did when they were just a familiar face. It’s like a venue, whether it’s in a magazine or a museum, where each picture tells you to look for something different.
BEGINNINGS & ENDINGS
You once said that when you started out, you were showing in some galleries and didn’t find it interesting. In what way has that changed?
No, I found it interesting but no one was buying it – I couldn’t live off it. I sold like three photos for four hundred dollars. So I was working for magazines, and I loved it, I loved the immediacy. From 1984 to 1987, I was working for almost every issue of Warhol’s magazine Interview. It was really exciting! But with galleries and photography, at the time, there was no market for it. I loved taking pictures, but there was nothing to keep me going. I was spending money but I couldn’t recoup anything so I was going broke. At the time, I couldn’t do it anymore but now I can go back to it.
Do you know this gallery, 303, in New York? That was where I started. It was my idea to found that gallery. That was in 1984, I did the first show, the inaugural show. Lisa Spellman and I, we were best, best, best friends. It’s not in her biography, but... I know she was kind of in love with me and she wanted to fuck me – I’d sleep in her bed but we didn’t. I was using her darkroom; she was 24 and a photography student working in fashion PR. But we literally came home from Danceteria one night and I said, ‘Please let me use your loft to do a gallery!’ And we called it 303,because that was the address, 303 Park Avenue South. We didn’t know that you had to wait a year to do another show, so I had the second show a few weeks later. It was great; we had fun.
But when I got back from London, she was dating Richard Prince and we weren’t able to be best friends anymore. She was showing Jeff Koons’ basketball in the aquarium. I said, ‘What’s this, Lisa?’ And she had memorized a paragraph from this catalogue. I knew that she knew nothing of what she was talking about, so I said, ‘What?’ And she started again from the beginning! And now she is this huge gallerist! But she also received millions of dollars from her parents when she was 25.
Her parents have passed away by now and she was an only child, so she has probably inherited the whole lot. So I come from this world. I grew up in the East Village in New York. But I can’t live there. I don’t like New York anymore – it is like a gated community for rich people. I feel so overloaded when I go there, I’ve had enough.
You write in your blog that you had to work as a prostitute in order to make ends meet in New York.
I wasn’t a starving artist, but I struggled for a solid ten years. For a long time, I didn’t have electricity or a phone, on 32nd and B Avenue. And then my first boyfriend, Luis, died of AIDS in 1984, when he was 24. So I thought for seven years that I was HIV- positive. I wouldn’t get tested, but I was in Act Up and I was struggling. Then, finally, I got tested and I found out that I was negative, which was some kind of a miracle, such strange luck. It was just some strange lucky thing because we were having sex before safe sex happened. We didn’t know what the hell was going on in the early 1980s. I was 17, 18 – we didn’t know that there was anything to be scared of. So then I moved to London because I just had to leave New York where everyone was dying my boyfriend died and I just had to get the fuck out. From 1984 to 1985, I was the London photographer for Interview and then I worked for The Face.
You always sound fairly nostalgic about New York even though it seems like it was a pretty harsh time after all.
I’ll be nostalgic for yesterday, you know? I’ve had a great life and I like the things that have happened. There have been some horrible times, too, but it is only human to forget the horrible things. Well, you don’t forget them, but you put them out of your mind.
TRUE & FALSE
You now live in Hawaii, which is probably as far away as you can get from the jet set within the us.
Yes, right now, it’s Hawaii for me, which is informing the new pictures that I’m doing, and Los Angeles, where I finally finished restoring this ancient studio. Ancient in LA terms, meaning from the 1930s. I like going back and forth between Hawaii and LA. At this point in my life, I only leave for exhibitions and that’s about it. I am not traveling for any other reason.
Your studio is where you build all the sets for your productions?
We turned this warehouse into a working photo studio in my favorite part of LA. It’s
perfect for me to shoot in. So I go to Hawaii and I come back to LA for the nitty-gritty work stuff. It’s where I can create all this shit, where I can make my dreams come true.
Photography actually seems an unlikely choice of medium since it is so attached to reality, whereas you use it to create your fantasies.
They are fantasies, for sure, but they are also reality because they did exist. If you take the cover of Heaven to Hell, we did burn that room down.
However, you have to go through this painstaking process of building a set to make your fantasies come true.
But I like it – it’s fun to build sets!
A lot of people are surprised to hear that your images are actually ‘real’ photographs – they look so artificial that nowadays one presumes they are digitally created.
It’s all real, it all existed, it all was there. They look fantastical, like they couldn’t be real or are digitally made. But I’m really not that good on the computer. I have to actually shoot and create something and, for me, that’s the fun part. That’s what I really like to do: to set up these scenarios. It took about two weeks to make this set for Heaven to Hell. It was a real room and the trees were painted with a real brush by my friend Marcus. So it’s not done on the computer – not that I hate the computer, I just don’t really know how to use it. I had this biblical idea for the cover. I knew I was going to call it Heaven to Hell, because we create our heaven, we create our hell. This is about the small deaths that happen. It is about this friend of mine, Brett, who died in the early 1980s. He was a really good friend of mine in New York who became a junkie and overdosed. His girlfriend called me – she was pregnant – when he died. Even though I had never met her I was the second person she called. The Pietà was always the death in art history and I wanted to do an homage to that idea but do the small deaths, the deaths that happen every day, that are quiet – a person alone in their apartment. The first book I had done was LaChapelle Land, the second was about a hotel and this is inside the hotel. You don’t know – is it Mary the mother of God or is it Mary the hooker of Third Avenue with her junkie boyfriend? But they are just as relevant. And we had Courtney Love, who was a friend; she wanted to play Mary in the picture. She thought the Pietà was about nativity and that she was going to be holding a baby. Now, I had just shot Kanye West as black Jesus so I thought, ‘Well, let’s do Anglo-Jesus.’ So we decided just on the day of the shoot to bleach his hair white-blond. Then he came to the set looking exactly like Kurt Cobain – and I thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s Kurt Cobain and Courtney, it’s another death!’ Another death of popular culture that I really hadn’t planned on. So Courtney thought she was going to hold a baby and then she saw my friend and was like, ‘Oh… He looks like Kurt…’ And I said, ‘Courtney, we can stop if you want to!’ We had this real moment… But then, these things happen – the resemblance to Kurt was not planned but these accidents happen, they are part of photography. So every picture in a way is like a snapshot – I remember what I was doing at the time and what I was thinking about. They did exist.
BOY & GIRL
As with Courtney love, you frequently work with the same women again and again. Would you consider them influential to your work?
I guess you are referring to Amanda Lepore, who I photographed a lot. She is someone I just saw and, well, she is so strange-looking. We started talking and I asked her if she would be in my photo, so she came to model for me. Looking at someone who looks so artificial, you know… Her face is beautiful but at the same time, through surgery, she created a completely new identity for herself, because she started life as a boy. I photographed her again and again. But once I got to know Amanda and her story, she became this person who is so down to earth. When my best friend in the world died, who was like a brother to me, Amanda was the only person who knew what to say and who would be with me. The others, they couldn’t be around – they didn’t know what to say or do – but Amanda just dealt with it in such a natural way because she went through so much herself. So many things – as a young boy growing up in New Jersey, her mother being a schizophrenic… Armand wanted to be Amanda from day one and would refuse to wear little boys’ clothes and a little boy’s cut. He fought as hard as he could to be a girl but wasn’t allowed to be. And it’s different for someone, you have to understand, who just fought to be himself. Then she started having surgeries and never stopped. A lot of people put judgment on someone like that when they are just judging appearances. Even I myself have preconceived ideas about the way people look and Amanda taught me to get through that. She has outgrown all of that – she is a classic and you can’t judge a book by its cover. I could go on and on about what her look could mean in society – the idea that we can transform ourselves through plastic surgery and the obsession that people have with plastic surgery. Has there ever been a face like that in history? When you see a photograph of Amanda Lepore, you can’t say it fits into one of the twelve categories of apes that ever existed. They say that we all fit structurally into one of twelve faces and Amanda is like the thirteenth face. Her, Michael Jackson – there are people who are transforming themselves through surgery, for whatever reasons. We have this available to us as a society and people use it; it is part of our lives today. It is one of our obsessions in America where we are having more and more plastic surgeries. So now, I am beginning to notice that Amanda is starting to look kind of normal. Twenty years ago, she didn’t look so normal! But now, when I am in Hollywood, I see a lot of people with lips as big as Amanda’s and breasts as big as Amanda’s… It is pretty funny; she was just way ahead of her time. I mean, not that she looks really normal but she started to look like people I see, actresses and soon. It’s just an interesting karma – she inspires me and has become a good friend. She is an exhibitionist and I love her.
RICH & POOR
You often feature all kinds of outcasts and underdogs in your work, most notably in your documentary film Rize, which is about the clowning gangs in the ghettos of Los Angeles. How did this come about?
I was brought by my friends to look at some kids to possibly put in a music video. And as soon as I’d spent five minutes watching them dance, I knew I was going to make a film, I knew the film was going to be global, I knew it was going to be big in Japan... Four years later, it was the number one film in Japan! Mr. and Mrs. Smith never got to be there.
Angelina and Brad had to settle for second because Rize was number one! There was no other documentary in 2005 that was released in as many countries as Rize. Most documentaries do not have what they call the ‘legs’. And it’s still going, at the moment it’s being released in Italy, we are going to Africa, it’s being shown in the favelas in Brazil right now. It’s just insane. And I knew it when I saw it! I was like, ‘Who am I? I’ve never done a documentary!’ I don’t know if it was a premonition or wishful thinking or just being smart. I don’t know. But what I am really proud of is having finished it. I was so worried when I was making it. At the time when I started it, I was so fearful that I might not finish it, ‘It’s going to be a bunch of shit; I am wasting everyone’s time. It’s just going to be this bunch of tapes sitting on a shelf collecting dust...’ That’s a fear! But I knew I had to keep going. I kept spending money – I spent close to a million dollars of my own money. I kept working like a monster, like a dog. At one point, I worked for eleven months without a single day off, shooting and then going to film... It was crazy.
Did you shoot Rize in between other commissions that you were doing at the same time?
I had to. I had to finance this film – I had to pay for the studio and for my staff – to keep things going. I couldn’t fire everybody to do Rize. And I haven’t made a dollar from it. We got paid back the costs but I will never see a dollar profit from it. But that’s Hollywood, they are thieves out there, they steal from everybody.
What’s so surprising about Rize is the style – it’s so down to earth and pretty much the opposite of what one would expect from you.
But people who know me, my friends, they know that it is totally me. They are not surprised at all because there is nothing more surreal than a clown in a rainbow suit in the ghetto. I love music; I love dance. Those things may not come across in my photographs, but dance was my first love. My first models in high school were all dancers. So it’s everything I love: it’s surreal, it’s colorful, it’s uplifting, it has a message. It has this dark side but, ultimately, it’s beautiful, plus it has got some layers. They call Christina Aguilera glamorous, but I think these kids are glamorous, as glamorous as any movie star, as any rock star! To me, it’s all about the poor being rich. I’ve spent time with the richest people on this planet and the poorest – we think we are rich but actually we are poor; it’s all a big lie. We get all these material things and all they are is a ball and chain. And the poor who think they are poor are actually rich. They have the joy of dancing in the streets and, when you see them in the house, the camaraderie and the love that they share.
FASHION & POLITICS
Isn’t this a contradiction, coming from the celebrity photographer in the world? Surely, you wouldn’t be where you are if you didn’t come from a safe and wealthy background yourself?
Of course. You know, I have been to so many countries. I have traveled a lot, all over the world. I’ve been to places with extreme poverty where I would have to shoot for Traveller magazine and do a story about some resort like the Four Seasons, and outside the walls of the Four Seasons, people would be living in covered boxes for miles and miles. I realized how lucky I was and that you could only be an artist, that you could only have a career as a photographer if you come from a place where there is peace. When there is war, it destroys everything and the first thing to go is art; the first thing you will lose along the way is art school, art classes. When I did Rize, these kids didn’t have art programs that was actually what saved my life! If I hadn’t had art school when I was a kid, I don’t know where I would be. So I am a product of growing up in America. I didn’t have to go and fight when I grew up, my school wasn’t bombed, I could go to art class but there are many, many people in the world who can’t do that and there are many artists who never get to be artists because they just have to survive and earn a living to get by. So I am a product of a world in peace.
Which is also a world that you are highly critical of, in interviews as well as in your pictures, even though that aspect tends to be overlooked. Do you set for yourself certain goals of what you are trying to express or achieve?
I don’t know what my goal really was or is; I have small goals. I always imagine a blank piece of paper when I am about to shoot something and ask myself what is it that I would want to see right now, what is it that I want to put out into the world. Then I make drawings and try to realize them, to make them happen. It is hard for me to articulate.
Sometimes I don’t know why I’ve done the things I did. There were always images in my head that I wanted to get out into the world, these obsessions and things I was thinking about. Yet, I happen to be working in fashion photography. I was attracted to this artificial side – shoes and hair and make-up, celebrities – since when I was a kid. But with time you get older and you start thinking about different things. You are more mature, you evolve, and you want to tell different stories. But you are working now, so the way you tell it is within your work, within your medium, and my medium was magazines. I liked to get published and be reproduced – that is pop art for me. It is really important to me to be part of popular culture and not only to comment on it. I started off working in galleries but it was too limited for me, too confined. I wanted to be part of the bigger world. But within this very particular world, nothing is expected of those photographs. The magazines don’t want them to tell stories, they don’t want them to have any meaning. They just want them to be selling shoes, with a pretty girl on a pretty beach in a pretty dress. They just want them to be beautiful.
But so far, you have been very successful stretching the limits of fashion photography.
That was always the freedom of working for fashion – as long as I showed the clothes, I could put content in the pictures but I wasn’t forced to. If I wanted to take a picture of something just because it was ridiculous, I did! And some days, I didn’t feel ridiculous. Some days I didn’t want to do absurdity, I didn’t want to tell a joke, so I would do another picture that I would plan out because there was something scary on my mind. As a film director, some days you wake up and you want to do a comedy; some days you want to do a documentary. For example, take the pictures of the models in front of the damaged houses. At the time I shot them, my mom was living in Florida and we were having this incredible hurricane season. There were hurricanes every week in Florida and I was anxious to get my mom away because she was right off the Gulf on the west side of Florida. Since my father died, my mother is all alone and I was worried sick, ‘Is her house okay? What is she doing?’ Then I got this assignment from Italian Vogue saying, ‘We want you to do shoes.’ I thought okay, but what was I thinking about at that time? I was thinking about my mom and the hurricanes. I am acutely aware of what’s going on with the environment and all those scary things that have been changing so fast. I had seen a lot of documentaries on climatic change and the proof is that we are having all these hurricanes. This is what I was obsessed with and yet I had to do a shoe story. So I snuck onto the set of The War of the Worlds, this Tom Cruise movie by Spielberg. They had left the sets up and we did these pictures. And then, by the time they were on the news stands, Katrina hit. Italian Vogue was on the news stands with these pictures of hurricanes and Katrina happened. People thought I did it because of Katrina but, no, I did it before. But that was what I was obsessed with, wondering all the time what to do. And I got in trouble! They were going to kill the story but it was already too late, it was already printed and out in public, thank God. The editor of the magazine asked me, ‘Why can’t you do pictures like you did? Like the girl with the helmet on, very graphic and happy and sexy.’ And I am like, ‘Well, that was five years ago...’ So they really just want me to do what they got used to. But I started taking pictures when I was 17. I can’t take the same pictures my whole life. It would mean that I am not growing as a human being. It’s not what is on my mind right now, and I always do what is on my mind. I am thinking the world is burning and we are playing the lute, like in ancient Rome. When Rome was burning, Nero was playing lute. We are shopping more than ever, we are looking at tabloids, we are needing so much stuff – the obsession with how many shoes can I buy, Gucci, Britney Spears – meanwhile things are falling to pieces around us. We are just distracting ourselves from what’s really going on. And I think that’s human nature; I’m not making a judgment. I am just documenting what I feel and what’s going on in my head. I want to show with my work what is happening and what I see.
MONEY & MEANING
You are now shifting more and more towards galleries and museums and, with heaven to hell, you have just published the third book of a trilogy. Do you feel like you are at a turning point in your career?
Yes, it is the last book of this kind. This book is the end, it’s burning the bridges. For me, the books represent the idea of Paradise Lost, that’s how I think of them. On the other side, there is a return to the innocence of Paradise Found. So that’s what I am starting on now It’s a whole new chapter in my life and in my work. I feel like this year has just been stopping. I just did a piece called The Deluge that is going to be an epic 20-foot mural, the biggest set I have ever done and the most work towards one picture. It’s based on the motif of The Flood by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. It’s the same composition, roughly, but we did it in Los Angeles, so now it’s set in Sin City instead of Rome. Meaning that this is over, it is the end of everything, the end of the world – or of this world, at least. And now, there is the return to innocence or paradise regained. So that’s what I am doing now, just flushing it out.
Do you like seeing your work in the context of a museum?
I like having exhibitions, seeing the work in a different context, having people see it. Every artist wants his work to be seen. Every writer wants his piece to be read, or dancer have his dance watched and enjoyed, every singer wants to be heard. Otherwise, it’s like singing in the shower. Which is fun, but... If you have great voice, why do you want to sing under the shower? You want to sing for an audience – I do. I come from that world of pop art. It’s for the people – vox populi – you want to make it work for an audience. It’s my voice, you know, and I want my voice to be heard. Art is about sharing. It’s not an ego thing, it’s not a money thing; it’s about sharing something. And you can’t share when people can’t see it. I like to be accessible. So if it is a museum, great. If it is a magazine, great. If it is on MySpace, great. But what really makes me happy is taking the pictures, not so much what comes afterwards.
Don’t you think that your kind of work has more subversive power in a magazine context than in a gallery?
Well, I found myself working as a fashion photographer trying to put content into the pictures and tell stories and show the shoes I liked the idea of working in popular culture and hiding these subversive things for myself. And now suddenly I find myself in the museums, which is great, but I am in between two worlds – the art world and the fashion world. When you show pictures in museums, they are expected to have meaning. The art world says they have it or they don’t, and this is creating a certain controversy. But I don’t care, I did it for myself. They have a life of their own. I have to be moving on to the next level. I don’t know what it is, I need time to think. I am not going to be so crazy anymore like I was before. A lot of the stuff was so intuitive because it was born out of this incredible pace I was going at. Sometimes when you have too much time to think about things you can ruin them. But we’ll see, you have to do what your heart tells you to. I could keep taking the same pictures and I could come back in five years with pictures of Lindsay Lohan and God knows who, and it would be like, ‘What, more?’ I don’t want to just keep going like a machine and keep repeating myself. I have said everything I wanted to say about a subject and I move on.
Do you find people in the art world critical of the commercial aspects of your work?
I have people complaining about the corporate sponsorship, for instance, of Puma at my show at the Helmut Newton Foundation. There was, for example, that woman who came to the press conference and started bitching about the mints on the tables and chairs. And you know what? Don’t eat those fucking mints! The mints are here because you’ve got bad breath! The other product sponsor was Red Bull – so you get a Red Bull: bad breathe. You take a mint and then you listen to the lecture. Or you don’t! If governments don’t give any money for art, you have to go to private companies to get sufficient funding. It is a great thing that they are here, so who gives a fuck? Yeah, the shit is made in sweatshops, okay. But at least they are putting money into art, so something good is coming out of it. Would you rather take money from the government? Why is government sponsorship or a government grant – which are dried up and finished by now – why is it more acceptable than money from industry? Yes, they want promotion – so does the government! They are putting money into wars! At least Puma is not waging any wars – governments are. Puma has less blood on its hands than the government. I am happy to take money from a company who wants to promote art. And I think it is a cool company, so why not? (Pointing at a pile of Puma boxes in the corner) My sister works at a homeless shelter in Florida; that’s where all this Puma is going. She gets housing for the homeless, she’s been doing this for twenty years. She makes $17,000 a year. All the other stuff is going to my friend Johnny in New York because he will pass it on to his broke friends. So I got all the Puma that I could, but what am I going to do with all these fucking shoes?
HEAVEN & HELL
So with your focus now on exhibitions, do you feel that the commercial world has become too limiting for you now?
I just can’t work under the terms and conditions anymore that I have worked under
before. So I am quitting magazines – I am done with celebrities, I am done with fashion.
I have outgrown fashion photography and celebrity portraiture only because they don’t want me to do what I want to do. I want to tell stories! These magazines are selling less and less – which is because of MySpace and the computer – so the editors are getting more and more desperate for their jobs. They are losing money, they are losing readers. There will always be magazines but there are going to be fewer in the near future. This is creating a very oppressive atmosphere that I refuse to work in. I’m just not going to fight with them anymore, I am not going to suffer anymore. That’s why I said ‘fuck off’ to Madonna and that’s why I don’t work with Christina Aguilera anymore – goodbye to them. I don’t have a good time with them. They are not nice people. They are really mean when you work for them – they might be nice at a dinner party or on a chat show. I don’t know what they are like when they are alone at home with their husbands, but they are not nice to people that work for them. So I am not going to do that. I have no interest in working for you anymore, goodbye. Perfect timing because I was done anyway. I have said everything I needed to say. I mean, where do you go from the end of the world?
I need to go to Paradise Found, which really doesn’t include status items. It really doesn’t include consumption. It’s not really about food, as excessive as I was with the hamburger and the hot dogs and the giant Coke can. It’s not talking about plastic surgery, I said that already. It’s not talking about climatic change because I already explored those topics within fashion photography. It’s not talking about consumption because I already photographed a woman in a McQueen dress lying on a pile of garbage. It’s not talking about the computer crash because that’s been explored. The end of the world has been explored, what you are going to wear when you are dead has been explored. So the idea of consumerism for me – yes, I was a working part of it, but I was always having a subtext and playing with it. You know, Louis Vuitton stenciled on Lil’ Kim’s body – was that a sexy image? Yes, it was a sexy image but what was it about? It was her body as a handbag, a body as a luxury item, it was brown skin as leather, it was about hip hop and status. It was about status items and the obsession with pornography and religion, about the obsession with rock stars as religious icons. That was already there – Madonna with a crown and the sacred heart – so all these pictures had a subtext. But now, I’ve said it all, it’s all done, I’m finished. I’d like to wipe the slate clean and start all over again. It’s kissing a lot of security goodbye but I don’t care about security, I never really did. I never made decisions based on money. I survived on nothing and was completely happy with it, I don’t care. I put all the money I’ve got into my pictures anyway. It’s an incredible freedom not to be a slave to your own idea of career, status or fame, of having a name. When you don’t care about these things, you have nothing to lose.
Do you think that people have often misunderstood your photographs?
My pictures have always been taken at face value, and that’s fine. But I have always
known what they are about on the underside; I have always known what the subtext was. I like the idea of having to subvert them, of hiding the stories. I like the idea of telling them without being obvious. So yes, you see this beautiful girl and yes, this is a fashion magazine and fashion pictures aren’t supposed to have any story. They are not supposed to have any content or context; they are supposed to be surface only. People would be offended – how dare a fashion photograph have a gun in it, how dare a fashion photograph be about climatic change? People didn’t get it but that’s okay. I didn’t do it for them; I did it for me.
It is ironic that you should be known as the celebrity photographer of our time, the man for the rich and the beautiful, whereas you are obviously trying to talk about entirely different subjects.
I think we live in a strange age, a very auspicious time of the world. There is a lot of change. My feeling is, we don’t have much time here. So I don’t want to waste time, I want to do things that are beautiful and still have a meaning, at least for me. When people talk about twenty years, I kind of laugh. Do you really think we are going to be here in twenty years? With the pace things are going? With the population and consumption growing the way it is? Really? I find it great that you are so optimistic to think so but, without being doomsday, I just don’t think we are going to be here in twenty years. I find it pretty naive to think that the world – America, China, Europe – will keep progressing and that all our resources will endlessly keep providing for a population that is ever expanding – without anything happening whatsoever! You’d have to be living under a rock to think that! I think the earth is at a crossroads of life and what it can sustain. Our obsessions and technologies have gotten to a certain point but we never became enlightened. Our chariot is a MasterCard. Our religions are soccer and football – those are our religious services and our obsessions. We have just as much blood lust as we ever had. We might not watch Christians getting eaten by lions in the arena, but instead we watch horror movies with people getting dismembered and mutilated, and we do so more than ever. There are more horror films being produced in Hollywood than ever before. You see advertising for Saw III with people who have their teeth pulled and hanging out – this was done by Lionsgate who did my film Rize. They are just pigs, really pigs. All they do is try to make money; they don’t care what the message is. If you are going to create, then create some- thing as an artist – you can do whatever you want! Do you want to create more darkness and more confusion, more nihilism, more death and destruction to satisfy our blood lust? Or are you going to do something that’s going to elevate people and give them something beautiful, something to think about? You have a choice. Heaven or hell. I choose to make heaven rather than to keep creating more images of hell. Because there is enough hell on earth already. So that’s my choice.
By Magdalena Magiera, Kai von Rabenau