OPEN THE FLOODGATES
Photographer David LaChapelle charts a new course.
What does a fashion photographer do next after reaching the pinnacle of superstardom, having published numerous celebrity spreads in Vogue, Vanity Fair, and Rolling Stone, and directed music videos for the likes of Elton John, Jennifer Lopez and Gwen Stefani? In the case of gay photographer David LaChapelle, the answer is to begin to produce more “serious” art. At his current exhibit, at Tony Shafrazi Gallery in Chelsea, we have a fascinating opportunity to view works from just before to just after this celebrated artist’s recent creative transition.
Though LaChapelle’s newest works are the ones closest to the gallery’s entrance to best appreciate the artist’s transition, begin with the photographs-dated 2002 to 2006-in the gallery’s side rooms. A few pieces feature celebrities in bold, outrageous poses-typical of the style for which LaChapelle is known. In one, Britney Spears holds a huge inflatable hot dog, as part of an ad campaign for the 2002 MTV Music Awards; the phallic symbolism is hard to miss. Nearby, sex icon Pamela Anderson is seen wrestled to the ground by a corpulent woman in pig costume. This photo appeared in a German magazine article about Anderson’s life, and it playfully comments on overweight woman who hate her.
Three works that appeared in a 2005 issue of Italian Vogue showcase LaChapelle’s unorthodox approach to fashion photography. We see women outfitted in dresses from Versace and from Viktor and Rolf, standing in the midst of urban ruble that was seemingly caused by a tornado or a bomb (the background is actually from Hollywood studio lot for a movie “War of the Worlds”). Shot just weeks before Hurricane Katrina, but sent to the presses too late to be yanked, these images created some negative buzz about LaChapelle when they were published, as though he were exploiting the human misery in New Orleans for personal gain. Public reactions aside, the photos are a tour-de-force- the women, beautifully coiffed, appear transcendent amidst the chaos.
LaChapelle’s most recent photos from 2007 provide a contrast, as they were created not for advertising campaigns, but in the province of fine art, and they have as their theme a great flood.
His central work is an enormous digital photograph (about 6 feet tall and 23 feet long) titled “Deluge” which was inspired by Michelangelo’s painting of the same name depicting the biblical Flood that is displayed on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Like the Renaissance master’s work, LaChapelle’s depicts several dozen people-all nude, and of a variety of ages and body types-helping each other survive their climate-driven catastrophe. But in the current work the setting is a modern-day Las Vegas; we can see the ruins of Caesars Palace, and even disclosed signs of Gucci and Starbucks.
Surround this piece are portraits of individuals photographed while immersed in glass tanks of water. The artist’s extraordinary use of light makes the subjects appear to be ascending to heaven. Their first names, many of them biblical sounding (for example, Deborah, Job, Hannah), serve as their respective titles. Completing these new works are staged photos of flooded interiors, including cathedrals and museums; they are beautiful as they are somber.
The specific motivations that have driven this artist from glam camp toward apocalypse are a mystery to me (concerns over global warming? His own impending middle age?). But one connection between the artist’s before and after seems to be an overarching theme of decadence. I doubt David LaChapelle will give up fashion photography any time soon-at age 44, he still has much to explore in the way of both glee and gloom. As evidenced by his current show, this is a man who is striving for creative balance.
By Rafael Risemberg