Ocean Drive April 1998

From Diesel to Drew Barrymore, America's wildest photographer pushes pop's outer limits.

Arguably the hottest young photographer in the United States, David LaChapelle has riveted the world with his color-soaked, surreal portraiture, fashion images and advertising campaigns such as the controversial Diesel series. Combining a flair for the bizarre with a real instinct for sublime beauty and a perverse fascination with the flotsam and jetsam of the American 20th century (everything from Bette Davis to McDonald's French fries), LaChapelle traces his inspiration to the larger-than-life circus that was Studio 54, where he was a bus boy: "Seeing all that-how people dressed back then, their attitude and spontaneity, the craziness of the era-definitely had a big influence on me," says the 35 year old. "But even though I was there, I knew it wasn't my time-I was too young. Still, I had the foresight to understand that the scene wasn't about running around on drugs and stuff: It was about escape. And my work is totally about fantasy, about getting as far away from reality as possible. Dreams should be part of our everyday life, anyway."

Certainly LaChapelle's oeuvre incorporates a great deal of dreamlike fancy, and celebrities, no strangers to make-believe, participate eagerly: David Duchovny displaying both a vampire-bitten hand and defined chest while running from an undead lady sprawled across the floor; Tori Spelling as a Hollywood trash vixen, her limousine floor accented by fast-food containers; Deborah Harry's Hoboken cab crash, the taxi and a mutilated phone booth fronting the Manhattan skyline; Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan as a somewhat knowing fetus; sitcom mothers exploding in a camp coffee-klatch orgasm as Brady Bunch matriarch Florence Henderson stays aloft a wildly careening auto; Leonardo DiCaprio playing cowboy/hustler/sexpot along XXX-rated Hollywood Boulevard; Joel West guiding the viewer through massive breast sculpture and orgy-inducing glass boxes, very Clockwork Orange, and, David's favorite, Drew Barrymore, just after the collapse of her six-week marriage, as a slasher bride run amok, bits of wedding cake and groom scattered about a Reign of Terror-red room.

When given a portrait assignment (he regularly shoots for Detour, Interview and Vanity Fair), LaChapelle considers the subject carefully: "I never want to take the same picture twice. With stars I think how I can photograph them in a way that somehow celebrates who the are." Beauty is essential, and LaChapelle freely admits he uses computer technology to enhance his subjects, minimizing their faults and transporting them to otherworldly settings: "I want everyone I photograph to look like movie and rock stars. I'm not into exposing their flaws of wrinkles or pimples. I am totally into making them look amazing. I was photographing Stevie Nicks a few years back when she was heavy. I sat her down and said, 'It doesn't matter because I'm going to make you look great.' But then when I shot her for her last album I didn't have to do anything, because she had lost that weight. Maybe that earlier sitting inspired her and gave her a little incentive. I have power with these photos and I'm going to use it to make these people look great, in the same way the old Hollywood photographers used everything that was available to them."

LaChapelle is passionate, not to say defensive, about his technique, but a garden path of artistic originality is always bounded by both blossoms and weeds. On one hand, acclaim has come to him in spades: Along with the 1996 publication of the wildly successful LaChapelle Land (Callaway/Simon & Schuster), he received the International Center of Photography's Applied Photography Award as well as being named Photographer of the Year by VH-1. And perhaps even more importantly, his images have attracted an immense array of devotees, from teen-age kids to the world's most discerning actors, editors and designers, who are buoyed by fresh blood in an increasingly narrow industry.

On the other hand, he has recently had some difficulty with his wide-ranging use of applied whimsy: Last year, for Allure, he altered a portrait of Mira Sorvino without her knowledge, doctoring her up as a Mommie Dearest Joan Crawford complete with little-girl-with-ax as Christina. Sorvino, plainly, was not amused, and publicly brought up the complex issue of image ownership-does the creator or subject have a stronger proprietary right? Still, LaChapelle maintains a distanced equanimity: "That is bullshit about manipulation. There will always be manipulation, every time you pick up a camera."

Brought up in Connecticut and North Carolina, he arrived in New York in 1978 and attended the School of Visual Arts, living a threadbare existence in the East Village and soaking up Manhattan's electricity. Soon, he became a wonder-boy photographer for Interview and a member of Andy Warhol's celebrated court, but a reaction against his initial penury is at the basis of his fantastical style and also explains his distaste for the current school of gritty "realism" espoused in American fashion mags: "This whole movement is just crap, because you're taking a model from an agency, greasing up her hair, sticking her in an apartment that's not hers, and then making it look like some fake Nan Goldin photograph. It's really insulting and gross. When they sample in music they have to pay for the right, but in photography you can take Nan Goldin of Larry Clark and just rip them off verbatim. They don't get royalties, they don't get credit, they don't get anything.

"And these photographs are actually more manipulating than mine-they are lying to people. They put these girls in $800 Miu Miu sweaters and Prada skirts in depressed surroundings and say it's realism. Nan Goldin took photos of her life-they meant something. I saw The Ballad of Sexual Dependency as a slide show in an East Village nightclub years ago, before it was a book. I was living in a spot like that with no electricity. I don't want to go back and take photographs like that. No one wants to see it. People want fantasy, escapism. Taking a photograph is like having a white page, a blank canvas, that you can do anything with. Every time I get that page I want to make the most fantastic thing I can. I don't want to do something banal that's going to wind up in the garbage, that no one's going look at or isn't thought–provoking in any way. Why bother? I don't do catalogs, I will never get hired for that, and I will never do it."

More adventurous companies, however, do engage LaChapelle for exotic, adventurous pitches, most notably Diesel, who, after years of attempting faux-LaChapelle tableaux, finally hired the real thing. (Remember the go-go boy/airline attendant who fires a planeload of women into ecstasy? How about the porcine executive sitting at a massive boardroom table with a number of blowup dolls?) Current campaigns include Ocumare-a tropical wonderland that could never exist, complete with butterflies and lush greenery, to hawk "rum from a magical place"-and Bass Ale, which positions itself as a happy option to such obsessions as cigars, tattoos and boot-licking. In addition, this spring we will see LaChapelle's new thrust for Camel cigarettes, which creates glamorously loony settings for smoking.

Similarly, his fashion images evoke an out-of-this-world beauty, like the 3 a.m. dreams of Anna Wintour after a particularly indulgent spread at Le Cirque. Shoes, for instance, are paired with the disembodied legs of a woman giving birth, or dangle precariously from the limbs of an unfortunately shark-severed bather. This dark humor is often a key ingredient in LaChapelle's work-a Galliano spread for the German magazine Stern featured a buxom milkmaid luxuriously squirting cream from one nipple onto a bowl of cereal-but the photographer does say that his efforts for French Vogue require a certain elegance the others do not. Still, he clearly enjoys pushing the couture envelope: "Different styles aren't really nurtured anymore in American Magazines, because the big ones are owned by two or three companies that inspire fear. The editors are afraid of losing their jobs, and you can't create when you're afraid. In France, where publishing people have job security, the editors take risks and produce something very interesting. Few people here are really fearless-like Ingrid Sischy at Interview-but the newer magazines are really out there and going crazy."

LaChapelle's style can be divided into three main influences: glamour, pop and camp. Regarding the first, he says "If I learned anything at Interview it was to make everyone look beautiful. That was Andy's basic philosophy-no matter what you do, no matter the concept, everybody has to be gorgeous. And that combined with humor is the most powerful tool right now. If you want to shock and titillate people, it has to be done with a positive, fresh energy. The Quentin Tarantino thing is too boring and easy-mutilation, darkness, cruelty-and it's been out since high school, anyway. You have to be more clever to turn skateboard kids on with wild imagery that's not about chopping people."

Pop: "To me it's a whole world. I love "Andy Warhol more than anybody. But it's funny: Because he was out all the time working and interviewing, he was so accessible, and as kids we would go, 'Oh, there's Andy again,' and tried not to be impressed because we wanted to be cool. But then he died, and then everyone was like, 'Fuck.' And then they had the retrospective at MoMa [two years later] and everyone was walking around with their mouths open, saying, 'Oh, my God, we forgot he was a genius.' The first time I saw his Marilyn images was on a school field trip, and they opened up another world of possibilities for me. They were so exciting they were almost pornographic to look at."

LaChapelle's pop perspective explores even the most rank American detritus: "I've been in New York since I was a kid and it's really not like the rest of America. When I visit my parents in Connecticut I find strip malls where there used to be farmland. I feel like a tourist in my own country. When I'm in a mall I'm like, 'Look at all this shit.'

"Three of four years ago I was doing a lot of pictures at McDonald's and Burger King. It was wow, wacky and new. I would never eat there-it's not about endorsing anything-but all those colors, those giant signs, are surreal. That's why Orlando is one of my favorite places to shoot. Orlando, Las Vegas, L.A.-they're perfect because they're so scary, and amazing to document. Up until then, I had never seen a Burger King used as a background for fashion photography. There had always been nature, lovely things, what is considered appealing. But you either find the beauty in these structures-or at least appreciate their surreal value-or you're doomed to be miserable, because that's all there is now."

Camp also appears strongly in many of his works, from the What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Tribute starring Madonna and Courtney Love lookalikes as Crawford and Davis to his Day of the Locust-frenzy portrait of Faye Dunaway on a white limo surrounded by rioting fans and a toppled behemoth Oscar statue, "I don't set out to do camp. I just have an idea and then later people say what it is. When I set up this Faye Dunaway shoot I wanted to portray her as the Last Movie Legend. I heard this incredible story about her orchestrating every appearance into a media event. In New York, her publicist had to hire screaming fans to mob her limo when she arrived somewhere. So I did the picture from this inspiration-the Last Star, the hysteria of icon worship and celebrity-and then it gets published and people go, 'Oh, it's so camp.' And I guess it is."

LaChapelle admits this gay-driven sensibility has been with him since childhood: "There's a certain something you're born with, a certain taste, and I'm always trying to figure it out. When I was in fourth grade, I sent away for this T-shirt from the back of one of my sister's magazines. The silk-screen on the front of the shirt just really touched me, even though I didn't know who it was for. But it turned out to be the cover image for Bette Midler's first album, and here I am in fourth grade, not knowing she's this huge gay icon. It was like some sort of osmosis. There are still photos of me wearing this Bette Midler T-shirt. And then I went to the public library and listened to the album and really liked it. It's so strange. You don't plan it-how can you? You're just drawn to a certain twisted sense of humor, and this is across the board in any country. Anywhere you go you meet people who laugh at things you're not supposed to."

The LaChapelleian world is now being transferred to film. Apart from an MTV ad featuring the Baby Jane gorgons and two scintillation Armani jeans commercials-one a wicked parody of fashion legends such as Donatella Versace and their hangers-on starring Jennifer Tilly, the other a Blade Runner-esque nightmare in which Jenny Knight and Ryan Phillippe run naked through some Futureworld until they achieve the safe harbor of Armani clothing ("Ryan's manager was furious that he took off all his clothes for this")-he has also directed music videos for The Dandy Warhols' "Not If You Were the Last Junkie on Earth" and Space Monkeys' "Sugar Cane." Totally unlike anything else seen on music television, LaChapelle's efforts are as characteristic of their creator as they are ideal for the bands. Color-blocked, swirling images complement the antics of a variety of supporting performers who back the comically blasé singers; in the Space Monkeys video, for instance, a giant, topless woman covered in pink ice cream breakdances out of a milk shake. Ideally, this county fair of minutiae can be seen as an extension of LaChapelle's photography: "My pictures always tell a story-they're crammed full of detail. I regard them as film stills, and always explain to my subjects the situation. They don't feel as much like models when they have an environment to work in and a sort of weird narrative." He is also currently writing and directing an independent film based on youthful experiences. "It's a composite of two people I knew growing up. And it's a real, timely story, not just these pretty images all strung together. It's a very personal project, but I always have to do things that turn me on."

Still, LaChapelle blames music videos as one of two culprits that have stolen away talent from the world of photography. The other is AIDS. "A lot of people who didn't have their careers when we were young would have had them now. If they hadn't died 10 years ago there would be great, great photographers, and much more competition. We would be seeing many more cool things happening. I was arguing with Helmut Newton about this the other day and he totally disagreed with me, but that's because he didn't know any young people who had potential and I did. Just like on Broadway-that's why we're looking at rehashes of Mickey Mouse cartoons. We don't have people like Michael Bennett anymore. Who knows how much great artwork we haven't experienced? But we don't miss it because we never saw it. Still, we have a new crop of kids rising from the era of safe sex who are going to make super images and up the ante again."

LaChapelle lost his best friend to AIDS in 1984, a devastating occurrence that inspired years of elegiac, ethereal, dimly hued work: "I was really scared, freaked out, and my pictures changed radically. I did all these angel images and was thinking about heaven. I even stopped working for Interview. But during that time I really learned about printing color, and then, years later, I could use it in having fun again. The '80s was all about black and white-Bruce Weber, Ellen von Unwerth, Herb Ritts-and I was dealing at that time with a lot of sadness and melancholy. Color represents a brighter outlook, and by the '90s I wanted to see it and do photography in a new way."

LaChapelle's originality has been so successful even the legendary Richard Avedon has said that he has the potential to be the genre's Magritte. But for all the stars who are desperate to be immortalized by him, some still do not understand the importance of their legacy. "I was recently shooting a very famous girl singer, and she was complaining, 'I am not a model. I am a musician.' One of my idols is Billie Holiday, and I'm thinking, 'Where would we be if we didn't have any photographs of Billie Holiday?' So many of these young actors give me this whole bullshit about, 'I don't want to be in the photo.' Look at James Dean-he has lots of brilliant portraits in just three years of being famous. Some people get it-the Marilyn Monroes, the James Deans. They're visually driven, all-around artists. Photography is a documentation of these people and, as such, an extension of their artwork. The ones who realize this value will probably have longer careers. After all, Brando didn't want to stop being photographed until he was overweight. Before that he appeared in photos shirtless, playing the bongo drums, posing up a storm. People forget that, and here these young guys are trying to pull Brandos at 22. Brando realizes he's had his day, the same with Garbo. You don't start acting like Garbo when you are a young thing. She stopped wanting to be photographed because she was old-she wanted to die new and keep that legend alive. These people don't even have a legend."

LaChapelle says "self-created people" are currently his biggest influences: transsexuals, Marilyn Manson, "even Elton John, because visually he manufactured himself. Plastic surgery is a whole trip-I just find it really wild when people completely redo their faces. Billy Corgan was here looking through my CD booklet and attacking Michael Jackson, and I said, 'He is so much more radical than your little bald head will ever be.' You can pierce yourself and look like Skylab, you can be as radical as you want, but, honey, no one can be more radical than Michael Jackson." Of course, Jackson is uppermost on the photographers list of desired subjects.

Though LaChapelle's portraits are as indicative of the '90s as Cecil Beaton's are of the '30s, maybe his ultrafresh style can be traced back to 54 and his Pop progenitors, after all: "I read something that said soon we'll be nostalgic for the future," he says, mulling over the notion of immediate retro. "But I just like to take things that are considered banal, or bad taste, and kind of reinvent them and make them good taste. Some people at Vogue might say, 'Oh, this is bad taste,' but I come back with, "I don't want to look at your catalog either.' I just don't care. There are people who respond to my work, and maybe they have green hair and ride a skate board but they're my audience and I love them." Ultimately, he leaves it to others to decide where his vision is taking him and simply continues to dream in LaChapelle Land: "Art is definitely purposeful and has the power to influence people, but it's not anything to get too crazy over."

Text By Eric Newill

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