Nurtured by Andy Warhol, the photographer David LaChapelle is renowned for creating controversy. But is what he does fashion or art? He tells Claudia Croft it can be both.-
Can a fashion photograph be anything more than simply beautiful? Can it address a serious issue? Can it give hope to people who see it-beyond the superficial dream of one day being rich enough and thin enough to look like the models in the pictures?
David LaChapelle thinks so, and if anything is guaranteed to provoke, then it is the images that you will see over the following pages. Commissioned specifically for Style, fashion’s arch fantasist had produced his most controversial shoot yet.
LaChapelle’s photographs are always hard to ignore. In his 22-year photographic career, he has provoked outrage, shock, delight, and hilarity, but never indifference. Now the Barbican art gallery has decided to honor his images as art with retrospective from October 10. Controversy may follow him, but LaChapelle insists he never courts it. “I never try to be shocking. That’s not what I’m about. It’s a shallow idea and it’s pointless. Maybe people find it shocking, but I’m always looking for beauty, whether it’s shooting in a strip bar or taking pictures of plastic-surgery addicts or the obese.
His kitsch, colorful and surreal images have made him a favorite with leading magazines, but in the pictures he has produced for Style the subject matter- death- is something new for him. “I call this series Ascension. They’re inspired by the Renaissance idea of painting the moment that the soul leaved the body,” he says.
For LaChapelle, these pictures also have a special meaning. Two years ago, Luis Nunez, his studio manager, died unexpectedly at the age of 36. “He came back to the office after lunch and just died. It was a huge tragedy. He was my best friend, and it brought up questions like: Doe the spirit die? Was it ever born in the first place? They are the same questions the Renaissance painters tried to answer.”
Nunez’s death affected LaChapelle so deeply that the self-confessed workaholic stopped taking pictures. “I thought I could not go on- but I did. We have an amazing ability to go on,” he says. “You can pick up the pieces.”
Although he has taken on a few celebrity shoots since the tragedy, it is only now that LaChapelle has been able to tackle the subject that has so obsessed him over the past two years. “I wanted to do this shoot foe a long time, but no magazine would allow me to,” he says. “The pictures are very important to me. They deal with a heavy subject, but they’re hopeful. My best pictures are the personal ones. They’re also the ones that wind up with the most response. Some people might be offended.
It was Andy Warhol who got LaChapelle into fashion. The young photographer showed Warhol some picture he’d taken of a girl applying hairspray while her boyfriend fondled her. Warhol, of course, loved them and hired him for Interview magazine on the spot. It was just the break LaChapelle had been waiting for. He’d started his career in fine-art photography, but prefers the faster pace of magazine work. “I like being part of the media and the culture rather than just commenting on it. I switched to magazines because doing one show a year as an art photographer wasn’t enough for me,” he says.
It’s ironic, then, that the Barbican is about to exhibit his work, but he is not the first fashion photographer to have his work taken seriously. In the early part of the 20th century, Man Ray worked largely in fashion, but his experiments with lighting had a huge influence on photography. The fashion photographer Richard Avedon held a blockbusting show at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1977, and both Cecil Beaton and David Bailey exhibited at the Barbican in the 1980s and 1990s. And earlier this year, there was an exhibition of Mario Testino’s work at the National Portrait Gallery.
“Art moves in and out of love with fashion. At the moment it is in love with it,” says Carol Brown, the head of the Barbican art galleries. “LaChapelle is such an innovator,” she says. “In the 1990s he was so different than everyone else. Many photographers were interested in realism and the street, but LaChapelle’s images are so fanciful, there’s so much of the carnival in the surrealist stages he creates. They are deliberately playful,” she says.
Always elaborate with his set design, for Style, LaChapelle hired an army of extras and special-effects artists to re-create different death scenes. An accident victim passes away in the back of an ambulance and a terminally ill patient finally loses the battle for life. Rising serenely above the chaos of watch death scene is the soul ascending, depicted as a beautiful woman clad in white. “I don’t think of heaven as fluffy white clouds, it’s just a way that we could understand it, showing white light, idealistic beauty and diaphanous dresses. But, ultimately I’m trying to photograph something that is unphotographable, yet is has its own vocabulary,” explains LaChapelle.
LaChapelle believes his pictures are more uplifting than shocking. “You can make the best of life because this is it, but I believe there’s something more. The idea that the spirit goes on is comforting, whether you’re thinking about your own death or something you know. If I didn’t show the souls ascending then it would be pretty nihilistic, but there pictures represent hope and optimism,” he insists.
So can fashion be a vehicle for commentary? “I don’t think people have come to expect much from fashion photography, but I’m challenging that,” he says. “Fashion doesn’t normally deal with death, but I believe you can show a beautiful dress and a beautiful girl and say something personally”.
Text By Claudia Croft