For years David LaChapelle was the go-to photographer for the world’s biggest stars: Michael Jackson, Hilary Clinton, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Madonna, Elton John. Produce a name and he will raise you a portrait. Dubbed ‘the Fellini of photography’, LaChapelle’s work graced the covers of the most prestigious publications in the world, transforming this Connecticut born genius, who was bullied at school and ran away to New York at 15, one of the most respected photographers on the planet.
Ahead of his upcoming exhibition at Paris’s prestigious Musée d’Orsay, Lee Joseph Hagan and Viktorija Grigorjevaite meet the man himself, to talk pressure, paradise, and Andy Warhol.
In 2006, at the height of his career, he ditched celebrity, changed gears and bought a former nudist colony in Maui, Hawaii. Immersed in nature, David found his way back to his first love, fine art, and after six months of solitude re-entered both world and gallery.
Aren’t we glad that he did.
Welcome to the world of David LaChapelle...
Take us back to 2006. You are the most sought after photographer in the industry, people are constantly knocking on your door, you are the epitome of success. Why stop?
“It is funny because I have always been very content with the work I do, but it is all dependent on time – different times call for different changes and different things to be made. I have always followed that intuitive feeling of when to move on. I quit at the height of the commercial career of dreams: working for the most prestigious magazines, making insane amounts of money – I walked away from that, I turned my phone off for six months. People thought that I was crazy, that I must be on drugs, that I must be burnt out - it was the opposite. I was done with that chapter. I felt it in my heart, in my gut. I felt this tugging at my soul, it was internal. I didn’t think I would be taking pictures anymore, I stepped into the void.”
But you came back...
“It wasn’t planned. When I was ready to reenter the world I began to receive invitations to show at galleries. I had quit, moved to a farm – I never imagined I would be invited to show at galleries. I knew I had more pictures inside of me and after six months of being alone, in solitude, in nature, I had things to say.“
A lot of things to say! Your recent exhibition at the Fotografiska Museet in Stockholm was the largest solo exhibition they have ever had (and the first time the museum has devoted its entire space to a single artist for a prolonged period of time, showcasing over 250 of David’s works). What kind of pressure does that create?
“I don’t really get pressured by those things. There is the logistical pressure of making sure my team has the right images/frames and that the pictures are properly represented and intact but that is just production pressure. I have to trust the curators to work it out in an order that makes sense because there are definitely chapters, one image informs the next. Every curator has their own take on it and I am open to that - I am willing to cooperate, sometimes!”
Do you feel as if the viewer needs to understand you as an artist before they understand your work?
“No, I like the idea of people looking at my work who have not heard of me and know nothing about me; I think those are the people who get a completely fair idea of what each piece is about. They see the work through fresh eyes.”
Do you feel the camera can truly capture the breadth of your imagination? Does it prove limiting at times?
“Anything I can imagine I can create in a photograph. I start off with drawing, sometimes with watercolours to get the palette correct and then work out the composition. It is about clarity. Once I have that figured out it’s about stage direction, allowing for the actors and the spontaneity of the photograph to have a life of it its own. The more prepared I am on the actual shoot the more room there is for magical things to happen.”
Religion features heavily in your work, would you describe yourself as religious?
“Nature is my religion.”
How important is it to have a key contact within this industry? For you, it was of course Andy Warhol (Warhol offered David his first job at Interview magazine).
“I believe it is about how hard you work and not the contacts you have. I would have done what I have done without having met Andy Warhol, though it would have been a different path. I think your early twenties are an important time. Periods of your life are like chapters, you have different energies at different times and in your early twenties you are fearless, you knock on doors, you are not afraid of rejection. People may not be showing up, they may not be buying but you are still creating because you have something to give, something to share with the world. There is a real tenacity at the age that you may not have in later life.”
So what current chapter are you in now? Do you look back with clarity or constantly move forward?
“It’s a good time right now. I am creating for myself. There is no commission, no deadline; the photographs are finished naturally and organically – it is the best way to work. Having been able to spend as much time as I want on an image to get it exactly how i want it to look and say what I want it to say is a luxury.”
Do you have a dream project?
“There is a series I have always wanted to do: Paradise. We are currently working on the idea and the images are coming out at this moment. It’s really satisfying. Being able to find joy in photography is radical because such a lot of work at the moment is confusing and dark and reflects the problems of our global situation, so uncovering the other facets of contemporary human existence is challenging. Exploring images of joy in all of its manifestations and have it taken seriously and not be dismissed is difficult in a fine art context. It is about capturing metaphysical ideas - I have always been interested in photographing the unphotographical.”
If you could go back to beginning of your career, would you do anything differently?
“We are all here to learn and grow. I was working incredibly hard, fast and furious through much of my life but luckily I switched gears. Now I have a lot more time for contemplation and introspection and therefore personal growth. You can grow technically with your work but if you are not growing as a human being it is very difficult to grow as an artist. It is very easy to make artwork or installations that are of an artistic nature but to really reach people one has to become enlightened. You must unplug yourself from all distractions and for me, that refuge is nature. I have finally found peace, and it will only make my work stronger.”