SHOOT TO THRILL
David LaChapelle has hired a publicist. Not an odd occurrence, since the photographer is becoming as famous as the celebrity subjects he shoots for magazines such as Rolling Stone, Interview, Detour, and French Vogue. What’s strange, though, is that the candid, down-to-earth LaChapelle doesn’t seem the type to have a publicist who insists on sitting in on an interview to make sure that he is “protected” against improper questions.
But when the interviewer balks at the notion, LaChapelle is consulted. True to form, he tells the publicist that he has no need for a chaperon. The hand-holding, it turns out, was the publicist’s idea.
So the interview does come to pass, in a health-food restaurant in New York City’s East Village, and LaChapelle explains that he has not hired a publicist because he needs to be shielded from every tough question that comes down the pike. He’s more interested in someone who can help him with damage control, the kind that was needed earlier this year when Mira Sorvino didn’t like a photo LaChapelle took of her that appeared in Allure magazine. Reports began appearing on the New York Post’s Page Sex maligning LaChapelle, with detractors alleging that the photographer had improperly altered the photo before it went to print.
LaChapelle will talk only off the record about the incident, but what he does say is that he hired a publicist to “help him react when people slam you and tell lies and don’t print true things.” The photographer believes that the potential for misperceptions of his work arise from fact that his photos are so highly conceptual. “I’m not playing it safe; I don’t take your ordinary type of photograph,” he explains. “There’s always some kind of drama going on within the photograph, and I sometimes get into trouble doing that.” LaChapelle says that the Sorvino incident is the “only problem” he’s ever really had and that his subjects are usually grateful for his way with a camera. “Normally, like with Marilyn Manson, you get a big bouquet of flowers at the end of the shoot and a “Thanks for taking some pictures of me that mean something.’”
There’s another reason why LaChapelle’s hired a flack. And no, it’s not because he wants to become more famous. “My goal isn’t to be on Hollywood Squares,” he says. “I like being behind the camera. But when people read about me and my work, they might want to look at my pictures. It’s the only point of doing an interview. It’s about the fact that there’s this body of work that I want people to look at. I think it’s good work, and I think people can get something out of it.”
Not surprisingly, there are plenty of magazine editors who also believe in LaChapelle’s work, Interview’s Ingrid Sischy among them. “The hardest thing in photography,” says Sischy, “is to give a picture your voice about how you see the world. This ‘voice’ thing is the reason that makes photography worth it. David has a voice, and because of that, his pictures are totally unique. It’s his concept of glamour; it’s his concept off being contemporary. It’s very much through his eyes.”
Much of LaChapelle’s best work can be seen in the 1996 coffee-table book LaChapelle Land, a collection of more than 150 sexy, surreal, candy-colored photos of celebrities, models, and bodybuilders. LaChapelle’s next volume of work will be published in the fall of 1999, but fans can get a taste of what he’s been up to at his next gallery show, “Larger Than Life,” in December at the Staley-Wise Gallery in New York City. The exhibit will no doubt include some of the Hindu-influenced Madonna photos he shot for the cover of the July double issue of Rolling Stone. It was his first time shooting the star, and he found her “shockingly photogenic.” He says that Madonna “looks one way in real life and another way in a photo. Her features just come together in front of a camera. I hardly did any retouching, and she’s a 40-year-old woman.”
The exhibit will also feature some of LaChapelle’s latest photographic obsessions: obese women and transsexuals. “I’m interested in the marginal people,” he explains. “There’s nothing more boring than the typical idea of beauty, like taking an Eames chair and a contemporary beach house and photographing some pouty model in front of it.” LaChapelle adds that a recent photograph he shot for iD magazine of an overweight friend in a couture dress has caused “a fucking sensation” in the fashion world.
LaChapelle’s use of transsexuals in his work seems to stem less from any radical notion of beauty than it does from his profound respect for their life choices-despite the fact that they are as the photographer believes, misunderstood and disrespected by society at large as well as by the gay mainstream. “They really have strong desires,” he says, “and they follow them through rather than going into a closet.” LaChapelle notes that he recently shot a transsexual friend’s getting silicone injected into her buttocks in order to make them more round. “They love having their picture taken, “ he says.”It’s like documenting them in this perfect state that they’ve worked to achieve.”
Another self-created subject LaChapelle feels particularly passionate about is Pamela Anderson, whom he photographed naked emerging from an egg for the cover of the November issue of Interview. “She’s an exhibitionist,” he says, “and I love working with her. She knows it’s about her body; it’s about freedom; and it’s about sexuality.” Interview’s Sischy chose LaChapelle for the Anderson shoot because she knew he would understand the actress from a “larger” cultural perspective. “There’s nothing nasty about David,” says Sischy. “you knew you weren’t going to get the kind of view that you usually get of Pamela-a kind of sexist boy-who-never-grew-up view.”
Unfortunately, shedding one’s inhibitions can sometimes come with a price, as the actress and the photographer found out in September during the Interview shoot on a Los Angeles street at 2 a.m. According to the pesky New York Post, the shoot drew the attention of the Los Angeles police, who “demanded” to see LaChapelle’s permit. According to a statement from LaChapelle’s publicist, the photographer was “put in the back of the patrol car, but in the end he wasn’t arrested or charged with anything.”
Whether shooting a celebrity on the city streets or taking naked pictures of his “misfit friends” in his bedroom when he was a teenager, LaChapelle has always followed his desires and remained true to his personal vision. Growing up in Connecticut and North Carolina, the 35-year-old photographer never hid his sexuality, despite the relentlessly cruel treatment he received at the hands of his peers. In the afterward to LaChapelle Land, the photographer wrote that he “was tormented in school” because he “was a freak.” In person LaChapelle explains what he meant by that statement: “I looked weird; I acted weird; and I wore my sexuality on my sleeve. I was this out gay person when I was a kid, and it really made me become a survivor so that nothing could fuck with me.” LaChapelle adds that the way he dealt with his sexuality was ultimately good for his art. “Being gay, you see the world as an outsider,” he says. “It makes you escape in your mind, and it makes you more creative.”
The photographer credits his parents with helping him get through the difficult period of his adolescence when the intolerance of his fellow teenagers drove him to entertain thoughts of suicide. “My parents are really nurturing and supportive, and they cared about me a lot,” he says. “They kept me from killing myself in more ways than one when I was a kid whether it was because I was lighting forest fires when I was 5 or because I was suicidal when I was 14.” LaChapelle dreams of a day when families celebrate the fact that their kids are gay. “They should have a fucking parade down the middle of suburbia,” he laughs, breaking into a mock celebratory pro-gay ditty: “Hooray! Hooray! My son is gay! I found him in a dress today!”
Well aware of the often painful pressures of growing up gay in a small town, LaChapelle is disdainful of the currently fashionable idea that we’re all living in a postgay world and that gays should now be able to sail blithely into the mainstream. “It’s easy for people to talk about being postgay when they’re living in New York or L.A.,” he says. “Talk to someone in the Midwest about being postgay; they’ve got to deal with the realities of small-town gossip, judgment, and condemnation. That’s an everyday fact.” The photographer feels that a postgay mentality ignores the realities of the present and blots out our gay past: “What you’re saying is that our culture doesn’t exist, that we’re just part of the mainstream. I’d rather think of myself as special or different.”
Just how unique LaChapelle’s sensibility is became crystal clear at a photo shoot when he wanted to suggest an idea that he feared even his trusted crew-composed mostly of his friends-might think was too far-out. A model was on a bed, wearing an Alexander McQueen dress, the photographer explains, and kneeling next to her was a naked man with his butt up in the air. “Suddenly the idea came to me: His butt needs to grow flowers,” says LaChapelle. “But then I thought, I can’t say that to my crew because everybody’s going to walk out and think I’m a big pervert.” LaChapelle went with his instincts, however, and told everyone what he wanted to do. “Nobody walked out, and they let me work through it,” he says. “And it became this beautiful thing. It doesn’t look like it sounds; it transcends that.”
Because of the conceptual, storytelling nature of his work, you might expect that the next step in LaChapelle’s career would be for him to direct a film. In fact, the photographer has been working on developing a film for several years. To whet his appetite, LaChapelle has directed a video for the rock group the Dandy Warhols, a short film for Giorgio Armani, and a Citibank commercial featuring Elton John, each one an intensely colorful, bizarrely off-kilter visual feast. “But photography is my first love,” he says. So much so that even romantic relationships sometimes gets squeezed out. “I’m in love with what I do, and it makes people I date feel a little uneasy,” says the single photographer. “I’m not clingy or dependent with people, but if anybody threatened to take my career away, I’d go bananas.”
It’s the end of the interview, and LaChapelle takes a crumpled piece of paper out of his pocket. He wants to make sure he’s gotten out everything he wants to say. “My work is about finding beauty in the banal and making the ordinary extraordinary,” LaChapelle says. “I want to enlarge the idea of reality and help people feel that anything’s possible.” Inspiring words-not even his publicist could have said it better.
Text By Peter Galvin