Sunday Business Post: Agenda September 20, 2009

Two minutes into our conversation, it's clear that David LaChapelle is a charmer. But while he's a clean-cut, in-his-prime, all-American alpha male, he is defined by neither charm nor good looks. If there are artists who capture the zeitgeist, he belongs to the tiny elite that creates the blueprint for the zeitgeist.

Commercially speaking, he is the hottest photographer on the planet. At auction over the past year, when most art has been down 40 to 60 per cent, his works have consistently sold for well over their five figure estimates.

This week he's in Dublin for an exhibition of his photographs at the Sebastian Guinness Gallery, a collection of works from 2002 to 2009.

LaChapelle has come a long way since his childhood in Connecticut, when his mother put her Box Brownie camera in his hand and he took his first photograph. He remembers those days with affection.

''My mother was an amateur photographer. She worked as a waitress, but at weekends, she loved to dress up and we'd go out and take photos. She'd emigrated from Lithuania during the war and had this idealised idea of America, so she'd dress us kids up in yachting clothes or Sound of Music costumes with little knee socks, and put us in set-piece situations - in the grounds of country clubs we didn't belong to, or posed at the entrance to some grand estate," he says.

''She once succeeded in making a hideous mall parking lot in suburban North Carolina look like a chic New England resort.

She was very careful with film - we only ever did one shot - but she had a good eye, and her photographs were beautiful."

For as long as he can remember, LaChapelle wanted to be an artist. ''When I was 15, I dropped out of high school because I was being bullied," he says. ''I was different from other kids, I was into Andy Warhol's Interview magazine and I wore weird clothes.

They called me a faggot, not because they knew I was gay, but because of the crazy way that I dressed. My mother used to say 'why can't you dress normal?' But I didn't want to be like the others, even at the cost of my safety.

''I ran off to New York, but my father came after me. He was the quiet one in the family, he was stern and he persuaded me that I should at least try to finish high school. By then, we'd moved to North Carolina and he'd found this school that had an art programme for high-school kids, and had arranged for me to have an audition. I turned up with my portfolio and they gave me a place on the strength of my drawings, even though I was a truant with straight F grades."

It was there that he fell in love with photography. ''I like two things about it, the collaborative side and then working solo in the darkroom," he says. ''The camera is so democratic; it's like a pencil, everybody can have one. The school was amazing, full of artists and dancers -who, of course, all posed for me."

Out of school and back in New York, he worked as a busboy at Studio 54 until an exhibition of his black and white photographs at the 303 Gallery landed him his first paid photographic assignment, shooting the Beastie Boys in Times Square for Interview magazine.

''After that, I kind of never went back to galleries," he says. ''I felt like I'd burned a bridge -at that time, if you worked for magazines you were tainted, labelled as a commercial photographer, so magazines became my galleries."

He quickly moved into the mainstream, shooting surreal covers and spreads for Vogue, Vanity Fair, Arena, Playboy, Esquire and Rolling Stone. It was the 1980s, a time of excess. If good art acts as a mirror of its time, LaChapelle has left future generations in no doubt as to the 'greed is good' spirit of that age.

His signature images were celebrity icons shot in erotically charged settings -a wicked if seemingly innocuous shot of Bjork that prompts startled double-takes; Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins in the womb; Dolly Parton morphed into a landscape; Kanye West with a crown of thorns for the cover of Rolling Stone; Naomi Campbell ''incredibly nude'' for Playboy.

LaChapelle went on to create groundbreaking advertisements, books, documentary films, and music videos for Elton John, Whitney Houston and Moby. In 2004, he designed and directed an Elton extravaganza at Caesar's Place in Las Vegas.

One of his biggest successes was Rize, a riotous dance documentary shot in LA's notorious South Central district.

''I had a 20-year crazy time documenting American pop culture, the obsessions, the compulsions, from Disney to Las Vegas, things that were obscene and attractive and repulsive all at the same time," he says. ''I learned from magazines -how to take photographs and meet deadlines, how to communicate, how to make my pictures stand out and get people's attention and then, once I had it, how to put over more serious issues. I want to do a lot more than take pretty shots of celebrities."

During his career, LaChapelle has chalked up a laundry list of awards for his photographs, videos, books, and films. He is also the recipient of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) Vito Russo Award for outstanding contributions toward eliminating homophobia. Since 2004, he has exhibited in galleries all over the world.

In recent years, his focus has been on tableaux series such as 2007's Deluge, a collection of photographs depicting floods in Las Vegas, a cathedral and a museum. The work is a reinterpretation of The Last Judgement, Michelangelo's condemnation of a world he saw as irredeemably corrupt.

''I wanted to get over the collective fear that's instilled in us by the apocalyptic times that we live in," LaChapelle says. ''If the end is coming, if it's inevitable, let's at least go out as enlightened as possible. In the picture of Las Vegas [Sin City], people know that time is out and death is imminent, but they are all helping each other. Their animal instincts aren't coming forward, there's empathy and love."

Deluge: Museum, a depiction of paintings sinking in a flooded museum, fetched $139,240 at Sotheby's in London last June. Record prices, however, give LaChapelle far less satisfaction than public reaction, and he tells me the proudest moment in his career happened when Deluge was first exhibited.

''There was this big crowd of young kids and older people, and they weren't moving, there was no giggling at the nudity, they were immobilised staring at the details of the picture," he says.

''They didn't know I was there, I'd crept in at the back of the museum, and the moment of reaching people through art was so beautiful.

I felt this gratification that I'd never experienced before. I love the idea that art can touch people; music always can, but with the visual it's a little harder to get people to stop and think, dream, and escape, and perhaps recognise thoughts they've been having themselves."

One photograph in the Dublin exhibition depicts Michael Jackson as an archangel battling with evil, and LaChapelle says he was taken aback by the strength of his feelings when Jackson died. ''What his life and death meant is biblical in its proportions, the way he lived, pushing so many people's buttons, the extremities he experienced, going from black to white, being adored and then facing all those accusations, which I think destroyed him," he says.

''When he died, I just locked myself up for several days and watched 30 years of interviews over and over and, you know, he was so consistent. He was a modern-day martyr, he really felt that he was here for a reason, and that comes up time after time in his lyrics.

I think his death should teach us about judgement. The way he was persecuted says something about our society - maybe we imposed our own perversions on someone who was very pure."

Key to LaChapelle's success is that, like Picasso, he has no particular style. A pioneer of digital photography, he varies lenses, lighting and mood to create something brand new with each shot. The only common denominator his images share is their vibrancy, from the hilarious shot of Alexander McQueen as a medieval damsel in distress, to Angelina in open-mouthed ecstasy.

One might get the impression that he shoots only day-glo primary colours, but then you come across a classic seascape, and a lyrical, almost monochrome, portrait of Jennifer Lopez. In recent years, his mother's influence has surfaced in his love of complex, fantasy scenarios: ''I love building sets, I love their sheer theatricality."

There is one icon LaChapelle has yet to capture on camera. One of the biggest kicks he has had in recent times happened when he unveiled his latest image, The Rape of Africa featuring Naomi Campbell. ''I shouldn't name-drop, but I can't resist," he says. ''Bono was there and he looked at the picture and said 'Oh, you've gone from pop to soul'. I thought that was so sweet I wrote it down. I don't have a list of people I want to photograph - he is the list."

LaChapelle has arrived in Ireland at what is possibly our lowest point in decades.

''People have said to me, why show in Ireland? My answer is that it's the perfect place for me, not for commercial reasons - I'm not expecting to sell in Dublin - but in tough times people look to contemporary art for all kinds of reasons," he says.

''It defines our times, it can help us make sense of the world that we're in. Too much art is made that leaves people cold and is too difficult for the average person to decipher.

My pictures don't look like art. That polarises opinion in the art world and a lot of academics and intellectuals dismiss it. An artist has the opportunity to raise consciousness, and that doesn't have to be a painful process for the viewer. I feel we've been through enough pain.

''I want to create pictures that attract, rather than repel - and then tell a story. I use beauty and glamour as tools to get people to look at the picture longer. I learned how to do that working for magazines and now I can apply it, not to sell a celebrity or a product, but in getting serious ideas across.

I don't want my work to be indecipherable, I want to communicate, I believe in the power of the image as a source of knowledge. I want to provide a pleasurable experience - but one that also has meaning."

As a postscript, gallery owner Sebastian Guinness offers another insight to his success.

''I've known David for 20 years, and what makes him stand out is his understanding of art history," says Guinness.

''He has a full knowledge of western and eastern art, and he's incredibly well read.

That gives substance to everything he touches. His images are figurative, but often there is a huge abstract theme behind them.

His work is intellectually rigorous, every single aspect is thought out, and worked on.

If it's not right, it's done again. The end result is almost like seeing a two-hour film in a two-thousandth of a second. He doesn't shock for shock's sake, he asks questions, and makes constructive criticism, whether the topic be the Catholic position on birth control, or gay rights."

Is Ireland ready for him? ''Oh I certainly think so," says Guinness. ''Twenty years ago he might have had a rough time, but in this age people understand what he's saying, be they in Tokyo, New York or Dublin. The great thing here is that Ireland is now an incredibly open society. David might be posing the questions but, if we're honest, they are questions we've all asked ourselves."

By Ros Drinkwater

Download PDF (0.9 MB)