Daisy McCorgray enters the mind of surrealist photographer, DAVID LACHAPELLE, as he discusses the projects Landscape and Gas Stations, and why he left commercial fashion photography behind.
Pharrell, Michael Jackson. Michaelangelo: an absurd combination, perhaps, but these are the people inspiring David LaChapelle in 2014. Looking through the surreal images of iconic excess and grotesque in his expansive portfolio (many of which are familiar for their controversy as much as their style). I was unsure of what to expect as I dialled the Los Angeles number. Yet as the smooth drawl, verging on the hypnotic, travelled down the line, I was drawn into the LaChapelle stream of consciousness. And for the hour spent speaking with the Rene Magritte of the photography world, it all seemed to make perfect sense...
Back to the beginning
Known to most as the high profile fashion photographer whose work has graced the pages of Vogue, Vaity Fair, GQ, Rolling Stone and i-D; you may question why LaChapelle crossed the boundary from glossy editorial to gallery project. Yet fine art was where it all began. “Even in elementary school in fourth grade, I wasn't paying attention to things that didn't interest me. I thought 'I'm an artist and I don't really need that',” he remembers. Following his studies in visual art at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and his first gallery show in 1984, David started working for Warhol's magazine, Interview. The role earned him the keys to the penthouses of commercial photography, and David was published in British Vogue and The Face. "England, or London I should say, was much more willing to give me a chance as a commercial photographer. My last real work for galleries was around 1991 and it was a complete disaster. It was at this weird gallery and no-one really came to it,” he recalls. “But in fashion and portraits, it was super exciting - this was my new gallery to show my work in a different context - different parameters.”
Yet by 2006, David had decided to walk away from the fashion industry. “I was at the top. Everything I wanted - contracts with Vanity Fair. Rolling Stone -working every day. At one point, my assistant turned to me and said 'do you know we not had a day off in 11 months?' It was just crazy that we'd been on that for 20 years.”
At a time when Weber and Lindbergh's black-and-white tones of nineties grunge were the look du jour in The Face, LaChapelle was exploding in colour. "I had wanted to drop a bomb in the world of magazine photography and I did- I changed the way it looked,” he muses. “I did this rainbow story, and it was like 'bam!' Shot in Los Angeles, we couldn't even find the clothes for it - we were crediting designers that didn't even exist, making up whatever designer it was when we'd got thrift store spandex leggings!' The super-saturated colours of the images got noticed and things rocketed from there. He reportedly became the highest paid photographer in the industry - capturing everyone from Rihanna and Madonna to the Alexander McQueen portrait that resides in the National Portrait Gallery's Primary Collection. But the crazy non-stop life of “living on a plane” eventually lost its appeal. “I loved every second of it, until I just fell out of love,” he says with a trace of regret, or perhaps just nostalgia. “People say 'oh you burnt out'. I didn't burn out - I decided. People couldn't imagine, they still can't, that I just walked away from the most lucrative photography career ever.”
The analogue angle
Learning his craft the analogue way, David suggests that even now his mind is hard-wired to “shoot analogue” despite using digital equipment. The Landscape series was shot on the Phase One 645DF+ body and IQ180 digital back, with Schneider lenses ranging from a 28mm to a 240mm. “Phase One is the system that I find best works for me. I don't even understand digital, there's so many wires and things!” he says. “My assistants have to break it down for me.” Yet it appears that some are rather critical of David's digital mental block, despite the imagery that he imagines and creates. “I had this not-so-nice journalist from CNN; she came to visit me in Hawaii, after I'd made the transition in 2006, and she said: 'So, your assistants set up your digital equipment? That's cheating.' And I was really taken aback - I thought about it and I was like, I'm not fucking cheating,” he says incredulously. “I paid my dues. I lived in a darkroom for 12 years! When I was in London I was either in the darkroom, or in a nightclub - I did not see the light of day! When I got the job with Interview, it was because my pictures stood out, not because I was working some angle or something. I actually thought I was gonna die, because one of my friends had AIDS, so I just wanted to give something to the world." It becomes clear why the metaphysical themes of heaven and hell, depicting angels, saints and martyrs were so prevalent in David's early work. "I was questioning [what happens to us when we die) because my friends were dying and I thought ‘why wouldn't I be one of them?’”
Crafting the climate
With such an eclectic myriad of themes constituting his past, where did the subject of LaChapelle's recent projects grow from? Intricately hand-built 8 x 10ft models of fluorescent refineries serve as monuments to the lives that we lead as a consumer today, and miniature gas stations, that, in their rainforest setting, remind the viewer of the cyclical nature of our world.
Daisy McCorgray: Sustainable energy and mass consumerism are subjects on many people's lips at the moment. What was it that made you choose to produce these projects?
David LaChapelle: It's not consumers, to me it's materialism that's worse. We all consume, we're all part of this world. But the idea that objects are going to bring us happiness: that's materialistic. We all need things to get by, things that bring us pleasure and quality of life, but at a certain point it slips into decadence. There was a giant scandal in the eighties when they interviewed Imelda Marcos (wife of the then prime minister of the Philippines) and she had 3000 pairs of shoes in her closet. It became this outrage across the world, people were starving and she had 3000 pairs of shoes! Today, that wouldn't even get mentioned. Working for fashion magazines was a huge paradox! I like clothing, love glamour and I love fashion and the creativity that goes into it. But, the branding, the ownership of lots of stuff that gives you a false sense of security and the status that comes with certain labels - that's stuff that I felt was off. It's not just the way we live in America, but all over the world.
DM: Why did you choose oil refineries and petrol stations to reflect this?
DLC: I didn't understand why I was making them in the very beginning. I just saw this image of a gas station in my head, this golden light coming from a little temple in the jungle. The gas station is the one church, mosque or temple that we all worship at, even if we’re atheists - we all go to gas stations. We all use petrochemicals in some way or another. The phone that I'm on right now is plastic - so communication, everything, comes from petrochemicals.
DM: Power stations aren't high on my list of beautiful objects, but there is something captivating and engaging about these images. How did you achieve this effect?
DLC: Too much work that deals with the environment is ugly. I didn't want them to be like that. I wanted to look at them with innocence, like I did when I was a kid. I would see a refinery, and it looked magical; all these lights and burning flames at the top - like where The Wizard of Oz was, or some kind of crazy amusement park. But I think we’re all aware that we’re in an environment that is about consumerism, these are things we've been talking about for quite some time, and I know that does come through in these photographs, but, for me, they're about transformation. Looking at a thing one way and seeing it as negative and actually, how do you change that? Flick the switch. But things that look beautiful may not be that beautiful, and using the refineries were the most obvious monuments to that. If we look at all the choices that we make: are they right, or is it just an illusion?
DM: The term hyper-reality gets bandied about a lot when discussing your work. How would you describe your style?
DLC: Well I'm hyper... a hyper person, for sure. The pictures are real because they did take place - the misconception is that they're Photoshopped.
DM: And are they?
DLC: Photoshop's just an easy way for people to dismiss what you do as cheating - to think they can work out how it’s done. We put so much time and energy into these photographs that I don't think people can understand that we spent a year making these models of the refineries. And that they actually exist and we shot them in the rainforest. But that's the way that I do it. If you go to the website, which people should because it's fun, you'll see there's a 'making-of' video.
DM: Why did you choose to create the power stations out of everyday objects and craft materials?
DLC: Things are made to be disposable, so that's why I use those things in the photographs - to show that intense wastefulness of our everyday lives. Sometimes we had to support them with little nylon strings and I left all those things in. I wanted people to see that they're crafted, because there's more magic to that. All of us have junk drawers. I don't know about you, but I have this draw that's just full of old phone chargers - I can't chuck them away because I paid money for them, it’s stupid. They make things to be obsolete now - so it's not just fresh produce now that has an expiration date. It's greed-based society and all of that is coming from petrochemicals.
DM: Have they had the impact you hoped they would?
DLC: Its so easy to point fingers at big business and this and that. But we inherited this society, this infrastructure. We're the children they were talking about in the sixties with the pollution and over-population - all of these things were a product of the industrial revolution. It has changed the trajectory of humanity. Talk about peak oil: we’re at peak everything right now. Things are really happening right before our eyes - the polar ice caps are melting, we’re having insane droughts -there's never been more CO2 in the atmosphere since the last ice age. There have been several mass extinctions on the planet and this one may be brought by us. Everything now - travel, the age of information - is the product of the discovery and use of fossil fuels. Were all going to wind up using those fuels irresponsibly because sometimes that's the only choice. And is it good or bad? It's neither, it just is what it is. Knowing that we have to adjust our lives, and think more consciously- that starts with art. We have to do the best that we can and we all know individually what that means for us. We're at the precipice of so many places.
DM: What would you do if you weren't an artist or photographer?
DLC: If I couldn't work in art, I really don't know what I'd do. It’s a gift, there are so many people in the world who never have that option to be an artist - it's a huge privilege. I love the immediacy of it, everything about it. I couldn't hold down a job - I don't know if anyone would have me as a rent boy because [adopts a mock-cockney accent) 'I've gotten on in years, know what I mean? Long in the tooth!'
DM: These projects are very time consuming, so we wonder, what's next? Are there any projects in the pipeline?
DLC: I've been working on a paradise series for four years now, we're shooting it in Maui. It’s kind of come full circle back to the work I was doing of angels and metaphysical ideas. I wanted to know what paradise looks like, pure joy and how you photograph that. What does it took like? So, that's a burning desire for me to get fully immersed in. I'm still finding my way, but I think I've figured it out a bit, so this summer I'll go full-on into that. Listen. I could just talk forever, you just have to tell me to shut the hell up!