One of the top international drawcards at this year’s Hong Kong Art Fair, surrealist photographers David LaChapelle discusses organic farming, giving up fashion for art and being censored in China.
For more than 20 years, beginning in 1984 when Andy Warhol asked him to shoot for Interview, David LaChapelle’s brand of candy-coloured, celebrity-flavoured photographic bombast littered the pages of popular magazines. If he wasn’t shooting models snorting diamonds like cocaine for Visionaire, he was photographing L’il Kim, her naked body stamped with Louis Vuitton logos for Rolling Stone, or, for Vanity Fair, he was taking pictures while a topless, 19-year-old Paris Hilton gave him the finger in her grandmother’s mansion. Addiction, consumption, fame: LaChapelle took contemporary America’s most lurid obsessions (or neuroses) and blew them up to ludicrous proportions, then recorded the results with the ambivalence of a madcap documentarian.
“We were not necessarily condemning anything, but questioning things,” says LaChapelle, 48, on the phone from the Los Angeles studio where he works with his team. “Questioning choices, documenting what was going on in American culture. We were having a great time doing it, shooting like mad, like crazy.” During those years, he often wrapped one shoot and immediately boarded a long-haul flight to the next. It’s a schedule that can’t have done his bipolar disorder any favours – the photographer is obstinate these days about getting eight hours of sleep, “because if it turns into six, then the next night it’ll be four, and the next night it’ll be four again, and the next night it’ll be two, and then before you know it the police are at your house and you’re standing in your front yard naked. Which has happened.” But LaChapelle thrived on the prerecession budgets and considerable editorial control (so long as the celebrity looked good, and the dress was clearly depicted), and he found sport in injecting humour and a touch of – if not subversion – then definitely surrealism into the pages of the world’s luxury bibles. He got magazines to print photos of everyone from the trans icon Amanda Lepore to Pamela Anderson wrestling with an obese woman dressed as a pig.
Like a lot of things, it was lots of fun, until suddenly, in early 2006, it was no fun at all. “I wasn’t in love with this idea anymore of publishing, of working for magazines, or of being in the service of celebrities,” he says. “The idea of working with another pop star, or ‘The Next Paris Hilton’ – it just didn’t appeal to me… And ultimately, you’re selling something.” So at the height of his career he walked away.
LaChapelle moved to the Hawaiian island of Maui, where he turned a 25-acre former nudist colony into an organic farm. “Most people thought I was crazy,” he says, “but most people were like agents and stuff like that. My friends understood.” Today, the farm employs four and produces goat’s milk, eggs, honey, fruits and vegetables. It’s self-sustaining, and any surplus is usually bartered. “Pretty much everything grows in Hawaii,” says LaChapelle. “Bananas are pretty much year round, and papayas and coconuts, but the rest of everything is seasonal. There’s avocado season, then there’s mango season, lilikois.” He splits time between the island, his studio, and the various cities in which he has gallery and museum shows.
Although he initially planned to do only fine art work, LaChapelle has slightly relaxed his magazine fatwa. He shot Lady Gaga for a 2009 cover of Rolling Stone, and he periodically does commercial work: commissions for private collectors, an Ed Hardy campaign. And his art market value has certainly increased; a print from his Jesus Is My Homeboy series, which depicted Our Lord consorting with modern-day gang members, prostitutes, and drug users, will be auctioned this May in New York, and Philips de Pury expects it to fetch around $40,000.
“I actually like having one foot in several places,” explains LaChapelle. “There’s more expected of an image when it’s hanging on the walls in a gallery or a museum, [and]…it’s important to keep the studio busy, and the relationships fresh.” The artist says he employs 19 people, plus freelancers. “What I do is very collaborative. I need to work with, you know, set builders and set designers and people that actually paint the things and make the things or get the props.” For all the glossiness of his style, there’s a lot of realism in a LaChapelle photograph. Not much is done digitally. If something is depicted on fire, or tide-marked by dirty water, or covered in trash, chances are the meticulously constructed set was in fact ablaze (or flooded, or buried in garbage) when the shutter clicked.
LaChapelle is currently working on the third and final part of a series that began with 2009’s Le Deluge, a 30-foot-long mural of people fleeing floodwaters that are (perhaps improbably, given Lake Mead’s reallife evaporation) destroying Las Vegas. The second part, The Raft, will be shown at de Sarthe Fine Art in Hong Kong, and incorporates collage. The last part “is sort of arriving at the shores of paradise,” he explains. He’s shooting it in Hawaii.
In 2009, LaChapelle showed a new piece called The Rape Of Africa. A reinterpretation of Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, it depicts a bare-breasted Naomi Campbell staring into the middle distance while a white warrior sleeps on a pile of loot. There’s a bombed-out wall behind them, and in the foreground, black children play with assault rifles and grenade launchers. As a parable of Africa’s economic and military exploitation, it was made even more uncanny in 2010, when Campbell was subpoenaed at the war crimes trial of Liberian dictator Charles Taylor. Witnesses including the actress Mia Farrow said that in 1997, Taylor had given Campbell blood diamonds after a charity gala. Prosecutors allege that Taylor armed his militias with proceeds from the illegal diamond trade; Campbell, who mentioned on the stand that testifying was “a big inconvenience,” admitted that two men had given her some “dirty-looking pebbles” but said she didn’t know whether they were from Taylor.
“It’s strange, sometimes, the things that come up in photographs, you know?” says LaChapelle. “There was this big diamond beside her, and the children with the weapons, and Charles Taylor sort of invented this idea of the child soldier.” Campbell owns the picture; LaChapelle has never spoken to her about the diamonds.
Last year, LaChapelle went to China to give a series of talks ahead of a Beijing show. “Everywhere I lectured, there was, you know, like a government official,” he notes. “But everything was okay. But then before the show, the government edited half of the work out. Like 50 percent of the work.” The museum appealed – although LaChapelle’s work is sometimes political, the censors’ issue was nudity – and even though the government relented, the response was too late, and the show was canceled.
The mantle of artiste may hang a little loosely on LaChapelle’s shoulders – “I listen to some artists in lectures and I think, God, they sound like professors,” he says, “It’s a little intimidating” – but he’s determined to bring the same discerning eye that he’s long brought to the worlds of fashion and celebrity to the art world. “I think that there’s bullshit everywhere,” he says. “It’s in the eye of the beholder, of course.”
by Jenna Sauers