The Peninsula September 2011

It is David LaChapelle’s first ever exhibition in Hong Kong when we meet. At a press preview the previous day, he spoke eloquently and extensively about his newest works and his career, taking numerous questions from the assembled media. Yet in a private, one-on-one interview the following day he appears almost nervous. His hands move continuously and his eyes dart around the room that is just a few floors up from the de Sarthe Fine Art gallery where his exhibition, entitled ‘The Raft’, is displayed. The arrival of his green tea is almost a relief for the artist as he has something to keep his hands busy, sipping frequently from the cup and refilling from the pot before it’s even empty. But he eventually relaxes and even lets out the occasional laugh; his hands cease their wringing as he speaks on a range of subjects, from his life’s work to his new-found freedom.

David LaChapelle began his successful career as a professional photographer for Interview magazine, the publication founded in 1969 by Andy Warhol who discovered LaChapelle. Prior to being scouted, he had been exhibiting his work in New York City galleries, following a stint studying at the North Carolina School of Arts. At Interview, LaChapelle began shooting the stars of the day, capturing on film some of the most famous faces of the times. With each successful portrait or fashion shoot came further offers from ever more prestigious titles and over what became a 20-year career, LaChapelle took pictures of the likes of Madonna, Eminem, Elizabeth Taylor, Hillary Clinton, Muhammad Ali and Britney Spears, among many others, as well as directing music videos for Christina Aguilera, Moby, Jennifer Lopez, The Vines and No Doubt, staging live theatrical events and even financing and making a documentary film. He made it to the very top of his game.

But in 2006 LaChapelle departed from the world of fashion photography. He’d had enough. Having been featured in magazines including Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and Vogue, and released three books of his works, he states that, “It was time. I’ve lived my life pretty intuitively. The third book had come out and it was getting increasingly difficult to get my pictures published in fashion magazines because I was commenting, very paradoxically, about materialism. The constant subtext was getting heavier as I got older. I was looking at things and questioning things in more obvious ways than the magazines would prefer and the pictures were outgrowing the idea of what they were there for. The concepts were, in the eyes of the editors, interfering with the selling of what they were selling,” La Chapelle explains. So in 2006 he stopped working. Entirely. At this pause in the interview, a PR representative pops her head around the door to check that everything is going ok. “It’s awful!” bellows LaChapelle with a grin. Though the green tea continues to flow from pot to cup at his behest, he seems to have relaxed somewhat. And that’s not just in terms of the interview. Having moved his concentration away from fashion editorials and the deadline-filled world of publishing, he is today very content focusing on art for art’s sake. “It’s what I began with. I started in galleries in the 1980s in New York. I love taking photographs. I love doing what I’m doing right now, exhibiting and making shows, or series of work, for museums and galleries. I find it really fulfilling and the challenges… well, it’s up to me to make it as challenging as I want to make it. If it’s not, that’s my own problem. The still image is as powerful as any other form of art.”

And that’s not the only thing. A certain carefreeness accompanies LaChapelle’s departure from magazines. “I have a great deal of freedom with what I do right now, and a perfect balance, so I have time in my life for other things. I think that in order to be my best, just as a human being first of all, and secondly as an artist, you must have balance. Hollywood isn’t something that interests me. Filmmaking doesn’t interest me,” he continues, referring to a foray into film where he created the documentary ‘Rize’, about a dance movement in South Central Los Angeles. “I still occasionally do a job that I guess is in the commercial realm if it fits into my schedule and it’s something fun. If all the elements are in place and when it feels right, I’ll do it. but it’s only two or three days of my time, and the benefit of it is that is keeps my crew working.”

When LaChapelle first left the world of magazines, he left it entirely. He stopped working. “I just really thought I was going to be a farmer. I thought, I’m going to have this farm…but I knew I had more pictures left in me, which I was a little sad about, but I didn’t have an outlet.” LaChapelle had never really considered exhibiting in galleries, but when the option was presented to him, he felt it was a revival of sorts. “It opened up this whole new world and a door that I didn’t think was open, which was gallery and museum exhibitions. Since then, there really has been this rebirth. I am very committed to the pictures that I’m doing and really want to make them as clear as I can and communicate as best I can. That’s the goal.”

In 2010 LaChapelle presented an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Taipei organised by de Sarthe Fine Art, LaChapelle’s exclusive representation in Asia. He then showed his work for the first time ever in Hong Kong in ‘The Raft’, a collection of images which he made especially for the show. The overarching ideas behind the artworks were concerned with finding personal peace through whatever means, perhaps through faith or even by gaining enlightenment. The centrepiece of the exhibition, ‘The Raft of Illusion: Raging Toward Truth II’, is a collage made up of photographs taken by LaChapelle, cut-up and stuck together to show a raft in the raging currents of a storm at sea. “I really love collage,” says the artist of his chosen medium, which harks back to his early days of exhibiting when he used the medium frequently. “It’s sort of tactile, the opposite of foundry-made work. For me there’s a little more of a human touch. Even though it’s photography, there is still this craft element to it that I really love.”

LaChapelle photographed people on a raft on some rocks in Hawaii, many in uncomfortable positions, to gain the energy and drama that he has always managed to capture so expertly, not only in this work but in photographs throughout his career. He then began to layer the cut-up the photos on top of one another. “I didn’t want to put it in the water digitally because I’d never worked that way before. I don’t think I would have been successful.” Instead he created multiple layers to get the feel of water, mainly using corrugated cardboard, “a humble material, but I find it really beautiful to work with and it gives certain dimensions.”

There’s more to the piece than its medium too, as LaChapelle explains. “We all go through storms in our life and I’m just offering my personal interpretation. Things happen to us, dark times or storms through which we either drown and die, or we rise above, make it the shore and gain empathy or enlightenment,” he says of the striking work which comments too on society and the anxiety inherent in it as the world faces some of the greatest problems it has in recent times with the uncertainty of our planet’s future.
In keeping with the location of the exhibition, the show also featured three works featuring Bruce Lee, more typical in style of some of his magazine works and inspired by film posters of Lee. These too were collage works but created in a different way with elaborate sets which included extremes of scale. Like most of LaChapelle’s works which often feature carefully designed sets, the resulting images are real and not digital composites and the shoots have been theatrically staged and photographed whole, with the features of the characterʼs face adjusted to resemble Bruce Lee.

Despite similarities in the style of some of LaChapelle’s works today compared to the heyday of his career, it is nevertheless removed from his commercial projects. He is able to comment freely on society and the issues that matter to him through his art, and can fully concentrate on new pieces. “It takes a lot longer now, having quit working in publications. I spend much more time in the process of drawing and thinking about what particular images will look like and what they will incorporate. If don’t like something, I can go back and re-shoot it and spend a lot more time on it which is great; it’s a luxury from having to always make a deadline under pressure. It’s a completely different way of working,” states LaChapelle. But he is quick to give credit to his career which has put him where he is today, and ultimately enabled him to work as a gallery and museum artist. “I learned everything through working in magazines. I cut my teeth on that. It was a really good place to learn how to
communicate, get the work done, and if you want things to look a certain way, how to achieve that.”

Through art and balance, LaChapelle has found his personal peace. “I enjoy my life much more now. At the very beginning there was the pressure of failure, and you’re not quite sure what you’re doing. You are still experimenting but you don’t have all the tools in place. I built a crew over the years who became very loyal and the work became much easier as I could start delegating. You don’t have to do everything yourself,” says LaChapelle, though he takes great pride in his work and, as he states later, is “pretty hands on with what I do. I’m cutting those pictures up, gluing them onto the walls and I’m really involved.” But it got to a point when the artist just couldn’t say no, and he became a self-professed workaholic. “I think part of it was the fear instilled in me from not finishing high school. My mum said, “You’re going to be homeless”,” says LaChapelle with a laugh. “That haunted me. I took on everything. But, then again, there was freedom in that too. I didn’t wind up in debt like other photographers and I was also able to finance a film that I really believed in.” However, following the filming of ‘Rize’ came a moment when he knew it was the end. Many things had come together to reveal to LaChapelle that it was time to move on. “I just couldn’t go on taking photographs of celebrities as it didn’t interest me anymore.”

To coincide with this confluence of signals that it was the end of a chapter, LaChapelle’s dream property appeared on the market, a secluded farm in Hawaii that would mean he really could get away from it all. “I had always wanted a cabin in the woods,” states the artist dreamily. “I’d often go to this little town in Maui to get away from everything,” he says of the rare occasions that he was able to take time off from work. “I was there (in Maui) doing an advertising job and my friend told me there was a farm there for sale,” recounts LaChapelle, his eyes bright like an excited child. “I knew then that
this was what I was looking for. It’s a much better life now than before, much more balanced, and I have more time to think, and take care of myself. I’m much kinder to myself and, subsequently, everyone around me.” It is here that LaChapelle works and spends most of his time, though he continues to keep a studio in Los Angeles for some of his more elaborate artistic ventures.

LaChapelle is at ease. He has reached a state of contentment, free from the pressure of working to the strict deadlines and fixed limits of publishing. It is almost as if finally, he is able to create the images which over his extensive career he has been building up to, returning at the same time to the work that originally set him off on his path to success. LaChapelle has come full circle. Would he change any of it? That remains left unanswered. For now he’s just happy to be healthy and free to enjoy life. But it is clear he has some fond memories of moments from his career, as well as some important lessons which he learned along the way.

“People always surprise you when you photograph them. I never aspire to be friends with the people I photograph. I’m buddies with my crew because they’re like my family. But someone like Pamela Anderson…” recounts LaChapelle fondly, citing her genuineness, kindness and intelligence as the basis of a connection and resulting that has lasted over 17 years. One of the photographer’s early assignments was to photograph the Baywatch star during the television show’s first season. Working on several jobs together over the years, the two became firm friends and LaChapelle even later introduced her to Kid Rock, as he remembers with a laugh, going on to tell amusing anecdotes from the pair’s wedding. “You just can’t judge a book by its cover and you can never judge a person by what you think they’re about. You’re always going to be surprised.” Tupac Shakur was another surprise assignment for the photographer. Having just come out of prison, LaChapelle expected “this real hardcore gangster thug stereotype.” The singer arrived two hours early for the shoot. “No rapper ever comes two hours early,”
exclaims LaChapelle as he again reminisces warmly. “Six hours late, at least! I had been working with rap stars for a long time and none of them had ever arrived early in my entire experience.” Caught off guard, LaChapelle had been vague about the concept for his shoot. “I’d learned long before not to tell people my ideas or what I was going to do because when you try to describe something visual it oftentimes falls very flat and there’s a million reasons to say no. If you tell people ahead of time, they’re likely to say no to protect
themselves. So I learned to be as vague and evasive as possible and put up these smokescreens about exactly what I was going to do on the day of the shoot,” explains LaChapelle. On this occasion, he wanted to shoot Tupac as a slave, based around the idea that rap evolved from call and repeat to keep slaves from losing their minds in the fields where they were picking sugar cane or cotton. “One might yell out a lyric or limerick and another would answer back and they would amuse themselves that way so the day would go by faster. That’s what I had heard about rap music’s roots were.” When
Tupac arrived, LaChapelle had a ploughed field, a mule, bales of cotton and a whole cast ready. He explained somewhat nervously to the rapper whose response was, “Let me get this straight, you want to shoot me as a slave?” To LaChapelle’s relief he was “down with that” and “it was a beautiful day.” Again, LaChapelle learned never to judge someone from the outside.

While the photographer looks back somewhat nostalgically on these highlights of his career, it is clear that there were other moments that he does not remember in quite the same positive light. But all of that is behind him now and he has an incredible oeuvre to show for it, whether you agree with the criticisms that his work is purely commercial or accept that his skillful photographic compositions, both from the past and today, can truly be regarded as art. And his oeuvre looks set to continue to expand. With his new-found freedom he strives harder, spends more time to convey his messages more clearly, and to enjoy his work and life even more. Seemingly happy with his new found role and the potential it brings to extend his artistic expression and go back to his roots, LaChapelle is looking forward to showing his work in Singapore next year and is thrilled to be in such a receptive part of the world. “I think people here are very optimistic and you don’t find a lot of cynicism. Thereʼs a great deal of receptivity and interest in the arts so it’s an exciting place and an interesting time to be exhibiting. I’m very lucky.”

David LaChapelle is represented exclusively in Asia by de Sarthe Fine Art, 8/F Club Lusitano Building, 16 Ice House Street, Central, Hong Kong.

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