FASHIONS HOTTEST PHOTOGRAPHER TALKS ABOUT SEX, AIDS, AND GROWING UP GAY
"I love any kind of exhibitionist or crazy person," says David LaChapelle, sitting on the floor of his Manhattan photography studio, talking about his favorite celebrity subjects. "I love anyone who doesn't listen to their publicists or handlers and does their own thing. People like Drew Barrymore and Leonardo DiCaprio-they'll do anything to make a cool picture because they're creative people."
Barrymore and DiCaprio are just two of the stars who have been lensed by 33-year-old LaChapelle, whose eye-catching work appears regularly in the pages of Details and Vanity Fair. In November, Callaway/Simon & Schuster will publish LaChapelle Land, a book of more than 150 of his fashion and celebrity photographs.
The book's joyously bizarre images include Faye Dunaway as a glamour queen gone to seed; Lili Taylor drinking a milk shake atop a giant mushroom; a men's fashion shoot from Details featuring a well-dressed man lying in a cabbage patch surrounded by ten naked babies; and an ad from an MTV campaign with Courtney Love and Madonna look-alikes as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
"David's book is great," says Joe Dolce, editor in chief of Details. "It's his own universe, and he lives there a lot." Dolce goes on to praise LaChapelle's aesthetic versatility: "He's able to play with surface and color and texture, and when asked, he can go much deeper. It's like working with four different photographers."
The most famous photo in LaChapelle Land is also the most homo-friendly: the much-talked-about Diesel jeans ad depicting a passionate V-J Day kiss between two hot and hunky sailors, portrayed by former gay power couple Bob and Rod Jackson-Paris. "That's one of the things I'm most proud of," says LaChapelle, talking about the shot, which he says he intended as a kind of fashionably correct commentary on the ongoing controversy about gays in the military. "Diesel ran that ad in 67 countries around the world," he marvels, "and I've met so many gay people-from k.d. lang to a bartender at a gay bar in Orlando-who told me that they ripped that photo out of a magazine and put it on the wall. I would have loved to have seen an image like that when I was 15-it would have meant a lot to me."
Amid a myriad of interruptions from assistants and stylists who are preparing LaChapelle's studio for a Smashing Pumpkins shoot one evening-the same evening the band's touring keyboardist, Jonathan Melvoin, died of a heroin overdose-the photographer talked about the torture of his early teenage years, when he attended high school in Farmington, Conn. "It was a really fucked-up time," he says, wincing at the recollection. "Basically, I was an outcast. I was heavily into punk rock and disco, and I was in art classes all day. People threw food at me in the cafeteria because I dressed differently from the other kids. Everyone assumed I was gay and called me 'faggot.' There were times when I couldn't take it anymore, and I felt like I could have done myself in."
Around the same time, LaChapelle began exploring his sexuality and met his first boyfriend. "I would sleep with him in my parents' house," he says, laughing. "He used to sneak out of my bedroom before my parents got up, but one time my father discovered us lying naked in bed." The photographer was gratified, however, by his parents' reaction to his homosexuality: "They got over it in one day. My parents are the best kind of people; they've always been accepting and loving."
Regardless of his parents' quick acceptance, the ongoing intolerance of his peers was ultimately more than he could handle, so he packed his bags and headed to Manhattan at 15. His parents, surprisingly, made no attempt to stop him. "They trusted me," says LaChapelle, "because I had always been pretty independent. They just hoped I was going to be able to sort myself out."
Manhattan ultimately proved to be a kind of Shangri-La for LaChapelle, offering him an environment where his uniqueness was not only tolerated but prized. "One of the first places I went to was Studio 54," he remembers. "The first night I was there, they were having a party for the Village People, and I got all this attention for all the reasons that people hated me in high school! I thought, Oh, my God, this is the place for me.
LaChapelle moved into the East Village with a waitress he met at the rock club CBGB's and stayed in the city for a year before deciding to go back to high school. Instead of moving back to Connecticut, however, he applied to a high school program at the North Carolina School of the Arts. He was accepted based on the portfolio of paintings and drawings he had compiled in previous art classes. "It was an incredible place," he says. "I was surrounded by people who cared about art, and a lot of the teachers were gay and open about it." While there, LaChapelle discovered photography. "I was big into realism and figurative art," he says, "and photography just seemed like a more efficient way to represent things. I never did another drawing after I picked up my first camera."
Moving back to New York after graduation, he began peddling his pictures around town, eventually crossing paths with Andy Warhol. "I met him at a party," says LaChapelle, "and he asked me to come by Interview magazine and show him my pictures. So I took all these pictures of my naked high school friends, and he said, 'Oh, they're great.' I didn't know at the time that he thought everything was great." Six months later, after compiling more shots, LaChapelle went back to Interview, and the magazine's art director started publishing his photographs. "Working for Interview was like school for me," says LaChapelle. "They let me make a lot of mistakes, and they kept using me." Assignments in other publications-The Face, British Vogue-soon followed.
But while his career began to blossom, the specter of AIDS cast a pall over his life for several years. "My boyfriend died of AIDS in 1984," he says solemnly. "He was my first real boyfriend, and we were together for three years. I felt horrible when he passed away, but what made things worse was that I couldn't devote all my energy to mourning, because I thought I was going to die too." LaChapelle's preoccupation with death affected both the output and the content of his work. "I stopped working for magazines for a while," he says. "Thinking that I was going to die affected the kind of photographs I wanted to take. In 1985 I designed these angel wings and took all of these pictures of people as angels. It was my way of exploring what happens when you die."
Eventually LaChapelle felt brave enough to get tested and found out he was HIV-negative. "Those test results changed my life," he says. "I felt like I wanted to laugh again, and I wanted to take a different type of photo." Thus was born LaChapelle's signature style as it is known today-bold, carnivalesque images illustrating a dreamlike version of reality that's both alluring and disturbing. "My work isn't just about form," he says. "It's about an idea. When I photograph Faye Dunaway, It's a portrait, but it's also a concept."
With business booming-LaChapelle is under contract to Details and Vanity Fair and shoots regularly for Paris Vogue and The New York Times Magazine-he says he has little time for a romantic life. "I don't want to get involved in a relationship until I meet someone I really want to be with for a long time," says LaChapelle. Meanwhile, he enjoys the camaraderie of his friends, several of whom work with him in his studio. "When you're a kid," he says, "you just want to fit in and have a bunch of friends. I've realized that through photography, I finally have a bunch of friends. I've realized that through photography, I finally have that group of friends. We love what we're doing, and we love each other. It's just like a family."
Text by Peter Galvin