MIXING DADA, CHER, MIDDLE AMERICA
Certain elements of David LaChapelle's shoot for Allure magazine last week were like almost every other fashion shoot organized in the 1990's: the photo assistant with a ponytail and sideburns, the model wearing stiletto heels two sizes too small, the fashion editor dressed for mourning and the crew ignoring the no smoking sign.
But put all those elements inside a gleaming silver conditioning chamber, used to test product durability at New York's Department of General Services Laboratory, and you have some indication of what is setting Mr. LaChapelle apart in a field where familiarity -- familiar models, familiar sets, familiar fashion -- is breeding contempt.
The model, Keri Claussen, posed between two steely generators that were props but were just as officious as the meat-locker-looking chamber itself, especially with signs attached warning "Danger Electrical Equipment. Authorized Personnel Only." Then there was the figure dressed as a laboratory worker, who kept darting in front of the camera, wielding an elongated ray gun and poking Ms. Claussen at intervals.
Mr. LaChapelle, 30, is at the forefront of a growing school of fashion photographers who owe more to Ridley Scott than to Richard Avedon, with elaborate props and extras, computer imagery and a fixation on the future.
"It's a very contemporary surrealism," said James Truman, the editorial director of Conde Nast, who published some of Mr. LaChapelle's first work for Details magazine. "He's perhaps just working from a different set of traditions than Peter Lindbergh. It's not about Belle Epoque remembered. It's sort of Dadaism, Surrealism, 50's kitsch to 70's bad taste, and 90's cyberculture."
Art directors and editors who have worked with Mr. LaChapelle share one comment about the work they received at the end of epic productions: it is always something they haven't seen before.
"He's very much a creator rather than just an observer," said Donald Schneider, the art director of French Vogue. "It's driven by the desire to look into the next millennium: building sets and manipulating the photos on the computer. Everybody is fed up with retro, and the good young photographers want to explore the future and come up with new things. He is the one farthest ahead already."
His most influential signature has been his pictures that give the glamour treatment to a source previously untapped by glossy fashion magazines: middle-class, middle-brow, middle America. That style has spread like so many M & M's tossed across a Formica countertop.
The Sound Garden video "Black Hole Sun" suggests Mr. LaChapelle's influence, as does the Isuzu commercial in which a twisted birthday party ends with a car being driven through a cake. Diesel, the jeans company with an ad campaign that has long been influenced by Mr. LaChapelle but always just misses the mark, has hired him to shoot its next installment.
And there can be no calling card more potent in the pop-culture pantheon than Mr. LaChapelle's most recent commercial project: he shot Tom Jones's CD cover for "The Lead and How to Swing It."
"The way I look at it is, magazines are the galleries," Mr. LaChapelle said. "And the museum is the refrigerator. If someone rips out the photo and puts in on the fridge, that really is something."
If not on refrigerators, Mr. LaChapelle's work is increasingly lining art directors' walls. Evan Dando's portrait for Details, for example -- in a baby blue vest and pants, shoeless and surrounded by blond-wigged albino-looking girls in yellow tube tops. "It's very Children of the Corn," Mr. LaChapelle said.
Or the photo of the band Belly in which 5-year-olds in clown masks cavort while the band poses in front of a cotton-candy-colored castle. "I wanted it to look like a kiddie show gone all sour," he explained.
Or a shoot for the December issue of Details, a gentle tale of resurrection complete with babies in a cabbage patch, a gospel choir, the Pieta and, alas, even common dust as a model tiptoes through a cemetery.
"The dullest thing in the world is a beautiful girl on a beautiful beach in a beautiful bathing suit with beautiful lighting," Mr. LaChapelle said, a statement that indicts almost every fashion publication. "It's so boring. There's nothing in it for anyone to look at. Now that we have the computer, it's a whole other world opening. As long as you show the bikini, you can have her riding a butterfly or astride an inchworm."
He picked up the camera for the first time when he was 17, in Westport, Conn., at a moment when his teen alienation came in the form of liking disco more than "Stairway to Heaven." He would make pilgrimages to New York to visit the meccas of the 70's: Studio 54, Fiorucci and Interview magazine, where at 18 he showed his first photos to Andy Warhol, who he said pronounced them "great."
"Later on, I learned he could look at a cookie and say 'great,' " Mr. LaChapelle said. Still, he was encouraged and immersed himself in the technical side of photography.
His first esthetic influence was Cher and her costumes on "The Sonny and Cher Show." "Especially where I grew up, everything was so drab," he said. "I like to think my work is dazzling in that way."
An assignment three years ago from Vogue to shoot Americana led to what is now considered LaChapelle style.
He was driving across the country, shooting a high school football team in Kansas, buffalo and immigrants coming into Texas from Mexico, he said, adding: "You couldn't tell which highway you were on. Instead of getting angry at that, I remembered that Truman Capote quote, 'Good taste is the death of art,' and I embraced it."
So for the next few years, fast food figured heavily in Mr. LaChapelle's photos, as did all the icons that fashion tends to leave out but that depictions of real-life America can't: ice sculptures, Coca-Cola bottles, paper cups, beanbag chairs, artificial Christmas trees. Because he is moving away from it, he can now afford to typify the style as "saturated color and garbage on the floor." Tori Spelling, for example, photographed in the back of a limousine with a McDonald's french fry carton at her feet.
"Those brands are so much a part of our lives," he said. "I thought, Why not have them be in every glamourous fashion photo?"
That brand awareness was certainly a Pop Art credo of his first employer, Mr. Warhol.
"Of course you want to go to an exotic beach in Tahiti to shoot, because we're here in the middle of strip malls and burger joints and fast food," he said. "Modern America wasn't in pictures because people look at it as ugly. But you have to embrace it, because there's no going back now. You just have to say, 'Oh wow, look at the new Shoe Town.' There's something very funny about Shoe Town, when you think about it: a whole town of shoes."
And where the real world fails him, he can always sit down at the computer and create a new life form or superimpose a spaceship that will chase a model through the pages of French Vogue. "I've changed people's faces on the computer," he said. "There's no place I draw the line. There's no reason to. I still prefer to send in a photo rather than a computer image, because I guess I'm still hanging onto this idea of a pure image. But nothing is really pure. Everything you do in a photo is artifice."
Text By Amy M. Spindler